Steampunk: Imagination, style and creation pay a visit to Vallejo

Originally Posted:   07/22/2012 01:00:26 AM PDT

Katherine Becvar and Samuel Cognilio kiss before stepping into the Marriage Machine during their wedding at Obtainium Works in downtown Vallejo. (Chris Riley/Times Herald)

It is difficult to have a discussion about steampunk without first spending a solid amount of time attempting to explain the concept.

Part literature sub-genre, part fashion trend, part social movement, steampunk has been developing for decades and was coined in the late 1980s to describe recent literature. In recent years, steampunk has even begun poking its head up in Vallejo.

Long-time Vallejoans Lynn Combs and Larry Holzer say they cannot help but have their interest piqued by the steampunk movement, and the genuinely nice people involved.

Combs is a former Mare Island machinist and on her 13th year as a historic clothier vendor for the Dickens Fair ( Sitting in the midst of the gentle chaos of her Sonoma Boulevard “workshop,” she explains that “everyone has a slightly different definition of what (steampunk) is.”

“We say it’s Queen Victoria got run over by Jules Verne,” said Combs, who earned double bachelor’s degrees in history and theater arts. “Because it’s Victorian, and it’s Victorian manners, and it’s the boots. And then they have space guns. And they have flying machines.”

Combs added, “It’s that time between the 1880s and 1910 where everything was invented. It was like this explosion of invention. And that’s what steampunk is — it’s this explosion of adventure with kind of a sci-fi/fantasy edge.”

Though, Combs said, steampunk is not simply defined or categorized, most people familiar with it are eager to give it their best shot.

‘Fun has discovered Vallejo

Combs, a fourth-generation Vallejoan, lavished praise on the introduction to Vallejo of the Pirate Festival, and even more recently, a steampunk-inspired artist’s workshop called Obtanium Works that opened in February.

Speaking of Berkeley transplants Shannon and Kathy O’Hare, who were drawn to Vallejo’s collection of Victorian homes three years ago and run Obtanium Works, Combs exclaimed, “I am so thrilled.” The O’Hares have played significant roles in the Vallejo’s Mad Hatter Parade, a winter event featuring fantastical (and somewhat steampunk-tinged) “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired costuming and vehicles.

“I’ve been here all my life … And they came to my party,” Combs said happily of the O’Hares. “It’s like, ‘Thank heaven, fun has finally discovered Vallejo.’ ”

Combs added that fun events like these give her a chance to show off Vallejo as “a nice place to be” and worth consideration for working people on the lookout for affordable housing.

Steampunk influence

Fred Jeska, of Woodland — otherwise known as Commander “Whiskey Nick” Triton of Her Majesty’s Royal Airship Service took it as a point of pride when, after a recent visit to Vallejo’s annual Pirate Festival dressed as his steampunk commander alter ego, he received much more attention than his more historically accurate friends.

Jeska summarizes his perspective on steampunk with little fanfare.

“I fall back on, ‘It’s Victorian science fiction,” Jeska said. “The education could practically be a college course. It runs the gamut in all ages and all interests. It’s really incredible, the number of people who are being drawn to costuming and alternate forms of science fiction.”

Jeska, who has been employed in retail sales for the past 30 years, now exclusively sells steampunk-designed “gadgets, gizmos, goggles & gear” at conventions and shows, and online at

Frank Malifrando, director, founder and producer of Vallejo’s annual Mad Hatter Holiday Festival — which will celebrate its third event on the first weekend in December — said the holiday event combines steampunk enthusiasts with those new to the idea in a joint-Victorian fantasy celebration.
Malifrando, voted “mayor of Obtanium Works,” admits to his own interest in the increasing popularity of the steampunk subgroup of Burning Man participants.

“(The Mad Hatter Holiday Festival) is not strictly steampunk — it’s a little bit of steampunk,” Malifrando said. “It’s a bit of whimsical, and it’s very fanciful.”

Steampunk creations, art

The oft eye-dazzling byproducts of steampunk are captivating to observers and participants themselves. Steampunk byproducts run the gamut from lavish costumes, modern technology modified to seem from an alternate era or actual working creations, like Shannon O’Hare’s Neverwas Haul, a self-propelled, three-story Victorian house on wheels, and steampunked Burning Man “art cars.”

Vallejo fashion photographer Maryah Trigg said she first started to notice a steampunk-influenced style emerging about 10 years ago. Trigg said it reminded her of the gothic trends popular in high school years, but with more browns and earth tones than the trademark goth black.

Trigg dresses some of her models in the steampunk style when doing photo shoots.

“I have one photo, where the girl is wearing a long teal evening gown and a monocle – the actual lens of it is not glass – it’s clockwork inside of that lens,” Trigg said. “Those are the kind of accessories that you would have. Like, clockworks inside of the lens would have the symbolism of being able to, possibly, see something in the future, or a possible X-ray vision or something like that.”

Do-it-yourself ethos

Steampunk style, Trigg said, seems to favor a do-it-yourself ethos, but with its rising popularity, there is no shortage of product available for purchase online.

“If you look at the people who actually do this as their own personal style and they wear this every day, you notice that a lot of their stuff is handmade, or it’s something that they’ll find at a vintage shop and they’ll recycle it,” Trigg said. “They’ll upcycle it and they’ll change it so that it looks more Victorian.”

3-D artist Mathieu Martin, who lived in Vallejo for three years before recently moving to Columbus, Ohio, said he considered himself a part of the the steampunk community. For him, that involvement comes with responsibility.

“For something to really be steampunk to me, it needs to be functional — and not just decorative– it’s helpful,” said Martin, whose daily dress typically includes a bowler hat and vest. “They’re doing it more for the practical reasons, and not just style. Like the goggles — they’re really important if your working on steam engines or traveling down a road in a carriage.”

Martin said he feels he has been unknowing a bit of a steampunk his whole life, as a tinkerer and admirer of the elegant simplicity of Victorian technology.

Vallejo photographer and artist Stephen Jacobson, dubbed “LensCap,” –not surprisingly — sees the artistic value in the steampunk movement.

“I think as an art form it’s incredible,” Jacobson said. “It’s like saying you like modernism or classic painting. It’s its own aesthetic. A lot of art comes out of this.”

Jacobson designed the cover for two steampunk genre books, “The Volcano Lady,” volumes 1 and 2, by T.E. MacArthur.

The ‘fun’ in steampunk

Cathleen Myers, artistic director and co-founder of the 25-year-old Alameda-based Period Events and Entertainments and Re-Creation Society (PEERS), said she has watched the steampunk genre steadily amplify in the Bay Area since the 1990s.

PEERS, a nonprofit educational organization (, primarily recreates historically accurate balls and events. But sometimes, even the sticklers like to let their hair down — a little.

“(Steampunk) means different things to different people. And we respect that. But we’re purists — we want our alternate history pure,” Myers said, laughing at herself. “For us, the charm is that you’re wearing these extremely elegant costumes with the options of raising your skirts and letting them down again, of having the advantages of high technology, but having it look so much prettier.”

Steampunk events

With a nod to the trend, PEERS will host the The Steampunktoberfest Ball in San Mateo on Oct. 6, imagined as if Prince Albert, producer of the Great Exhibition of 1851, were hosting an Octoberfest of modern day.

In San Francisco, the Edward Gorey-inspired Edwardian Ball celebrated its twelfth annual event this year by PARADOX Media. The event, with a decided steampunk style, has gone on to add a second night, the Edwardian World’s Faire, due to popularity.

For the first time this year, “retro-futurism” event hosts Swing Goth have planned Steamstock, a steampunk-inspired music festival at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond Oct. 7.

San Francisco-based Lee Presson, of the “by-the-book jazz” and swing band Lee Presson and the Nails, will be one of the Steamstock entertainers, and he expects to sound nothing like his counterparts.

“Steampunk doesn’t really have a sound yet,” Presson said. “That’s the idea of steampunk — putting stuff together that’s never been put together before. It takes a step forward by taking a giant step backward.”

Presson said he thinks his band keeps getting booked to steampunk events because of the “whole lot of brass we have on stage,” adding that the only true steam-powered music comes from circus calliopes.

“The fact that we’re willing to play with the archetype, paying lip service to the traditional but at the same time twisting it … (means) we’re not that steamy, but we’re punky,” Presson said.

Contact staff writer Jessica A. York at (707) 553-6834 or Follow her on Twitter @JYVallejo.

Steampunk at a Glance

  •  Draws inspiration from Victorian, Edwardian eras, steam-powered technology and literature such as by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells
  • Coined as a phrase in 1987 by author K.W. Jeter — a reference to the term cyberpunk
  • Literature subgenre of science fiction and fantasy, often set in a mythical Victorian setting or alternative future as dreamed by Victorians
  • On the Web:;,

Perspectives on “Steampunk”

  • Lynn CombsVallejo: “It’s fun — good, clean, safe fun. It’s a valve to let off pressure. It’s a sanity-saver… It’s all theater — they’re basically doing improv when they dress up in their outfits, and go out conquering evil — we really wish we could.”
  • Larry HolzerVallejo: “Steampunk is basically getting into Edwardians, without gasoline.”
  • Cathleen Myers, Alameda: “For us, it’s Victorians and Edwardians meet high tech.”
  • Fred Jeska, Woodland: “We’re the first generation that kind of grew up with trick-or-treat. So, we were exposed to costuming pretty early on in our lives. And I think a lot of adults have missed that. Here’s a chance they can have to trick-or-treat every month, if they like.”
  • Maryah Trigg, Vallejo: “It is about what would happen in the future. It’s very H.G. Wells — with the time machines… (which) are fantastical and fantasy-like.”
  • Mathieu Martin, Columbus, Ohio: “For me, it’s the search for knowledge.”
  • Stephen Jacobson, Vallejo: “Steampunk is kind of like doing Victorians with a lot of fun tools. That’s the only way I can put it. And kind of making your own history.”


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