One of the most common reactions Linda Cohen gets when people look at her art is, “You’re the steampunk lady? Not what I expected.”
And she’s delighted by it.
The retiree took up art full-time around six years ago, when she and her husband moved to Missoula from Salmon, Idaho.
The former floral designer always had an eye for color and a gift for crafting, and she quickly transitioned to mixed-media three-dimensional artwork. Her love for steampunk followed fast, after her daughter turned her on to the steampunk band Steam Powered Giraffe.
That led her to Googling steampunk — a genre of science fiction that imagines the Victorian age’s aesthetic and technology took hold, creating a world of airships and steam-powered gadgets in the coming centuries. An offshoot, cyberpunk, imagines a futuristic world where high tech is crossed with societal breakdown and decay. Cohen dabbles in both.
“It just really appealed to me,” Cohen said. “It was so creative and opened up such possibilities.”
In the years since, her inspiration has led to making steampunk jewelry, clothing, clocks, sculptures and dolls. She sports a pocket-watch-style clock with exposed gears on a necklace and has sold handmade goggles at the Missoula People’s Market while sporting a top hat.
Found objects dominate her pieces, from gears and nuts and washers to circuit boards and knobs.
Nearly all of them are scavenged from Home ReSource, where Cohen and her husband dutifully dig through bins of spare parts, the more rusted the better.
“I basically go looking for shapes,” she said. “My husband will say, ‘What are you looking for today? Round things? OK.’”
Some Home ReSource finds finish out partial pieces, while others inspire whole sculptures, like a box of 1000-watt light bulbs Cohen recently found.
“What are you going to do with all these burned-out bulbs? I have no idea,” she said.
But, soon the bulbs were collected onto a round base with radio tubes creating a 3-D collage of glass and tubing. She calls it “Bulbous.”
Other pieces include an untitled collage that features a circuit board mounted over a mishmash of painted and plastered backgrounds, or a pair of blue gelli printed pieces, with rust-colored paper gears dotting the canvas.
And a myriad of clocks, most mounted on a larger piece, like on one of three large metal discs strung together with chains.
“I was inspired by the repurposing aspect of (steampunk),” Cohen said. “I found some interesting art techniques that grew into steampunk and just fit.”
One of those techniques is using iron paint, a black paint with iron mixed in, that rusts over several days when sprayed with an activator. When Cohen’s happy with the amount of rust, she simply sprays a sealer over it to stop the decay process.
The mishmash of styles, media and found pieces create pieces that are easy to stare at for a while, to try and discern what items make up the rusted-out computer like an “I Spy” book.
That gains Cohen lots of interested viewers at her Saturday market booth, many men, she says, who take to the industrial/computer style. Sometimes people point out computer parts and know what they are, to Cohen’s surprise.
Her favorite story to tell involves two young boys who perused her booth and approached Cohen, in top hat and handmade goggles, to tell her, “Ma’am, you’re badass.”
“He was so polite,” Cohen laughed. “That was my best moment.
“There’s a whimsy about steampunk,” she continued. “You don’t take it seriously.”