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Manitowoc Steampunk Artist Joan Emmett Melds Victorian with Modern | Art Forward

Diana Bolander, For USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Published 8:20 a.m. CT Feb. 6, 2019

Manitowoc resident Joan Emmett has no desire to wear a corset every day, but never tires of creating steampunk-inspired art and gadgets. 

Steampunk is a literary and artistic movement that combines elements of Victorian-era history and fashion with modern technology and fantastical fiction. It gets its name from the general emphasis on steam-powered technology. And everything about the movement appeals to Emmett since discovering it online in 2012 while looking for new music. 

“The creativity that the genre perpetuates is amazing,” she said. “The music usually has a touch of swing or comedy, or both. The books are usually set in Victorian England, or America in the 1800s, and the costumes are over the top. The steampunk community has the friendliest, nicest and most polite people I've ever met.”

One of the best things about steampunk for Emmett is that she never gets bored. “With steampunk, I can paint, sculpt, pull things apart, and put them back together," she said. "It is the first thing I've found that has really held my interest for longer than a year, because it isn't one thing, it's a lot of things.”


'Great Uncle Logos' by Manitowoc artist Joan Emmett (Photo: Courtesy of Rahr-West Art Museum)

Inspiration comes from many places for Emmett, but sometimes it is just the curiosity of seeing whether she can make something herself rather than buy it. A lifelong fascination with old objects and an appreciation of the quality of older objects also feeds her imagination. 

Growing up in the Central Valley of California, she was heavily influenced by ghost towns like Bodie, state parks like Columbia, Victorian towns like Sonora and cities like San Francisco. Steampunk lends itself to nautical themes, too, so living in a town like Manitowoc also influences her work as "art supplies" like old porthole or ship lamps are available at local antique shops.

Unlike most artists, Emmett usually has an idea and jumps into a project — she doesn't use many sketches. Inspiration strikes when someone makes a comment or she sees something she wants to try making for herself. From there, she stews on it for a while, "usually making me toss and turn for a few nights,” she said. A self-described "closet scientist," she likes to jump in and see if she can make things work for herself.

After a work is finished, Emmett will often create a narrative for the piece that she includes on her website and gallery labels. She sees these stories as part of the fun of her work, but not as important as the work itself. One of her favorite characters is Uncle Logos, a monocle-wearing rabbit that started as a Photoshop creation but now is a sculpture with his own furniture and backstory as a flirtatious hot-air ballooner. 

Emmet sees art as being an integral part of society. 

"Every business on the planet needs art to build it," she said. "Someone makes the sign over the door and the fliers they distribute ... someone has to design the products we use and the packaging. Art is what moves us forward.” 

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