Modern masterpieces celebrate Brockton’s shoemaking era with Steampunk style.By Jennifer H. McInerney | Photography by Jack Foley with supplied images from Fuller Craft Museum.
The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton has never before hosted an installation quite like this one—the 15-foot-long sculpture that occupies the museum’s main gallery displays both human and robotic characteristics, combines primitive mechanisms with modern technology and incorporates antique as well as industrial elements. This visually riveting and mechanically functional piece of kinetic art created by Steampunk artist Bruce Rosenbaum, has one foot firmly rooted in the past and the other striding confidently into the future. In homage to Brockton’s history as a leader of the shoe manufacturing industry, Rosenbaum named his creation “Shumachine.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the distinctive art movement known as Steampunk, here’s a somewhat literal translation: breathing new life (steam) into something antiquated, and making it cool all over again (punk). Think: refueling, refreshing and reinventing. Historically relevant materials are fashioned together in a distinctly artistic way to create a new and inspired interpretation of the past. Rosenbaum breaks it down into a mathematical equation, “history plus art plus technology equals Steampunk.”
For a better understanding, head over to the Fuller Craft Museum this month to take in “New Sole of the Old Machine: Steampunk Brockton, Reimagining the City of Shoes.” This extraordinary exhibit celebrates Brockton’s thriving shoemaking industry around the turn of the 20th century with a series of multidimensional, multimedia sculptures that incorporate machinery and equipment from that era.
The museum has billed the show as a “retrofuture exhibition, where each object is a kind of speculative fiction, a fusion of modern sensibility with industrial antiques.” To implement Steampunk Brockton, Rosenbaum and Beth McLaughlin, the museum’s Chief Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, drew upon the talents of designers, metal workers, kinetic sculptors, engineers, model builders and printmakers who have worked in the Steampunk genre.
On a shoestring budget, Rosenbaum and McLaughlin visited antique shops and scoured eBay to amass a small collection of shoemaking paraphernalia representative of the late 1800s. They invited artists to share their vision—and these specialized items—for the show.
“The art of Steampunk is an organic process. It grows out of what materials are available and what period treasures you’re able to find, and how you fuse them all together,” says Rosenbaum.
In the case of the “Shumachine,” a series of serendipitous finds set this sculpture in motion. During his search for shoe-manufacturing objects, Rosenbaum stumbled across a limited-edition Krippendorf Kalculator from the early 1900s. The dome-shaped device with a wooden wheel functioned as a mechanical spatial calculator for measuring shoe leather to be cut into different sizes. The Krippendorf Kalculator could quickly determine the most efficient use of the leather to be cut. Fellow Steampunk artist John Belli—whose work is also featured in the Fuller Craft exhibition—discovered the rarity while visiting an antiques shop in New Hampshire.
“There were maybe 100 of these ever made, since it was used for such a specific application,” says Rosenbaum. With the help of Todd Cahill, a Waltham-based Steampunk artist, the calculator has been restored and features prominently in Rosenbaum’s “Shumachine” sculpture. In addition, two period sewing machines, which were used to sew shoe soles, are inventively integrated into his sculpture.
A ‘Lasting’ Innovation
Shoemaking began as an art form of its own–a slow, laborious process that typically resulted in 70 pairs of handcrafted shoes a day from a single cobbler. A young African American inventor by the name of Jan Matzeliger developed a machine that streamlined the production of shoes, increasing the daily output to 700 pairs.
While living in Lynn, Massachusetts, Matzeliger worked as an apprentice in a shoe factory, where he learned the painstaking cordwaining trade. Cordwainers created foot molds, called shoe lasts, out of wood or stone. The introduction of his shoe-lasting machine, patented in 1883, accelerated the shoe assembly sequence by automating the final steps of the manufacturing process. With a shoe positioned on a last, the machine stretched the leather around the heel, and then positioned and pounded in the nails.
“Jan’s invention revolutionized the shoe industry,” says Rosenbaum. Footwear manufacturing in Brockton burgeoned to more than 100 factories, employing some 6,000 residents. Known far and wide as “Shoe City,” business boomed from approximately 1880 to 1920, and then gradually diminished as companies moved their manufacturing operations overseas. The city’s last remaining shoe factory closed its doors in 2009.
Matzeliger’s story served as the inspiration for Rosenbaum’s larger-than-life creation, “Shumachine,” in which the inventor essentially becomes the invention. More than a century after Matzeliger’s death, he comes to life again—Steampunk-style.
Mixing the modern technology of an iPad with early 20th-century industrial shoemaking equipment, Rosenbaum’s sculpture channels the young inventor in a whole new way. “I’ve created a robotic head through which Jan talks to museum visitors. He’s speaking from the past to Brockton’s future.”
The individual building blocks of Shumachine are museum-worthy on their own: in addition to the Krippendorf Kalculator and the rare sole-sewing machines, there’s also an antique shoe-shine stand, 1870s barber chair, an authentic brass ship’s wheel, actual shoe stretchers from the shoe industry’s early days and a number of related collectibles. By fusing each of these singularly interesting pieces, Rosenbaum has fabricated an interactive time-travel vehicle for the imagination.
“Shumachine” also features an old-fashioned/modern-day photo booth, in which visitors can be photographed against a backdrop of Shoe City during its heyday.
“In a sense, Steampunk is a form of time travel,” he notes.
Rosenbaum did not initially set out to become a “Steampunk Guru,” as he’s been called by the Wall Street Journal. “I didn’t even know what Steampunk was,” he recalls.
After earning a business degree from the University of Massachusetts and an MBA from Duke University, Rosenbaum forged his own successful direct-marketing company. He describes his entrée into Steampunk as, quite literally, “through the back door.” In 2000, he and his wife purchased a 1901 Victorian Craftsman in Sharon and began to fill it with period-specific architectural salvage and gadgetry.
“We wanted to be sympathetic with the house, but we didn’t want it to look like a museum of useless objects.” He discovered ways to make them useful and give these old-fashioned elements a new purpose. In the kitchen, for example, he converted a 1890s cast-iron, wood-fired stove into a working electric oven with a Miele glass cooktop. He also transformed an antique fireplace mantle into a Steampunk home theater, by replacing the mantle mirror with a plasma screen TV and concealing all of the mechanical components inside the fireplace insert.
Such antiques are irreplaceable and were made “with craftsmanship, pride and detail,” Rosenbaum continues. “We didn’t want to throw away that history, so instead we brought history into the modern age. It’s considered adaptive reuse.”
Rosenbaum’s commitment to preserving the integrity of the original elements while casting them in a modern light led to more Steampunk projects and, in 2014, to his first curated show, “Steampunk Springfield: Reimagining an Industrial City.” Since then, he’s been commissioned to create one-of-a-kind Steampunk sculptures for commercial entities, including the Chelsea Market in New York, MGM Springfield in Da Vinci Park and a Steampunk café in Dubai, among many others. He recently completed “Steampunk Armillary: Celeste,” a 25-foot, 6,000-pound functioning planetary sculpture, which holds court in the central courtyard at the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge. Composed of steel, aluminum, copper, bronze, and brass, Celeste rotates via planetary gears and integrates lighting that changes color. Rosenbaum also collaborated on the creation of the Steampunk Mechanical and Pneumatic Whale sculpture, which greets guests in the lobby of the Nantucket Hotel and Resort, on Nantucket.
The Steampunk Brockton exhibit, which runs through the end of the year, recaptures the spirit of Shoe City with 25 original pieces from 15 artists. Each sculpture has been thoughtfully devised using materials, equipment, machinery and other authentic details that culminate in a truly engaging and dynamic experience.
A sampling of the exhibit includes: “Ladyslipper: Land Speed Racer,” comprised of copper, brass, leather, maple, burl, and other woods, aluminum, MDF, and PVC; “The Flyover Shoe Boys,” with leather, wood, plastic and clay components; and “Shoe City Airship No. 7,” incorporating copper, brass, steel, walnut, teak, a whisky barrel, a vinegar barrel and aluminum and leather. “This show is really about resilience, just like Brockton is resilient,” says Rosenbaum.
The Fuller Craft Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.