Author Archives: karen

alGas Biotech: Algae Batteries for the 21st Century!

algasAmSteel innovator Adam Freeman’s company alGas Biotech focuses on creating alternative energy sources based on the biomechanics of algae. This innovative technology uses the “properties of plants, polymers, and ionic liquids to improve the chemical reaction which makes a battery system.”  Read more about this fascinating new field of exploration!

 American Steel: Who are you?

Adam Freeman: I consider myself a gentleman scientist, balancing many hats to fulfill my need to exercise my fascination for understanding.  My days are spent evaluating medical devices as an Investigator for the Food and Drug Administration. My nights are spent doing research in an array of medias.

My love for speed and muscle cars has lead me down a path of learning about biofuels and building systems to run them.  After many years of research in the biofuels arena, I observed viability issues as did many.  The knowledge I took from this led me to explore alternative uses for biotechnology and nanotechnology.

I went to school in Georgia, Kennesaw State University, where I learned about biochemistry.  I learned that the most incredible systems are designed by nature.  This philosophy has intrigued my curiosity and led me to explore applications for biotechnology.

From yeast, e. Coli, and diatoms serving as tiny manufacturing plants programed to sweat things like fuels and petro based chemicals, to using the properties of these biological machines to build or optimize systems we use today.  My previous studies in this field has led to what I consider one of my most promising and most intriguing projects:  Organic batteries.

While in the bay area I have constructed a team of scientists and experts to help me create an optimized battery system.  We have been hacking the components of battery systems to perform better at their intended use.  I consider it tuning established technology.  Typical batteries rely on a chemical reaction to store and provide energy.  We are using the properties of plants, polymers, and ionic liquids to improve the chemical reaction which makes a battery system.

algas-300x300AS: What do you do?

AF: I consider myself a jack of all trades.  I am not the “best” at anything, but I am well rounded.  I study music, engineering, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, chess, and lately I’ve been exploring the concepts of electrical engineering to support my battery project.

What has been your most exciting accomplishment recently?

AF: Last week I was welcomed into the QB3 start-up in a box program.  With this I am being provided with a wealth of resources to help my organic battery project gain momentum.  Additionally, I came in third at the BlueSkyBio competition through SynBioBeta where I was also awarded $17,000 in credits for ScienceExchange.  The prize also provided my company, alGAS Biotechnology Inc., with a free law firm to help guide us through the process of protecting our intellectual property and navigate through the scary process of taking outside investments for the battery project.

BtFob7KCEAAqR2V copyAS: American Steel Studios is primarily an art studio. You are doing some pretty impressive R+D. How does  American Steel Studios support the work that you do?

AF: Not only has American Steel provided me with a space to hack away at projects, it has fostered my innovative and artistic sides as well.  Instead of working out of an isolated garage where I used to spend many quiet nights working alone until sunrise, I am now surrounded by a plethora of artists and innovators.  If I run into problems or can’t find or have a tool,  almost certainly one of my neighbors does.  In addition, they have the experience to give me some advisement before I break into an unknown and screw something up.

For my battery project, many of the tools I need do not exist or are too costly for me to afford.  As such, I have had to design alternatives to industry and laboratory equipment needed to really work smart on my project. We have been working to build ergonomic testing platforms usable for high throughput testing, optimizing, and performing quality control for our battery and its components.

algas2AS: How do you fund your research and product development?

AF: My research has been funded on a shoe string budget.  To date, there has been no outside investment other than resources we have obtained through presenting at competitions.  My co-founders have all been working for free on the project (as have I).  My co-founders include:

Dr. Paul Wolski, who has a PHD from UC Berkeley in Comparative Biochemistry, and is currently teaching at Stanford University.

Dr. Juan VillaRomero, who has a PHD from UC Berkeley in Microbiology, and is currently employed doing water quality studies for the California’s version of the environmental protection agency.

Eduardo Dominguez, who has an MBA from Golden Gate University, and has worked in finance for several large pharma companies.

Together we have been navigating through the path of fabricating energy storage systems which will be biodegradable, hopefully non-toxic, rechargeable, injection moldable, and will have much better energy density than batteries of today.

B5lh6FfIQAAYPniAS: What is next for you?

AF: Well, we have just hired an animator to help us make a scientific illustration of our concept.  We intend to have them make us a three minute or so pitch which will be projected through a crowdfunding site to give us some money to get materials we need to make our next round of prototypes.  We want to send these prototypes out for independent analysis to laboratories where they have the know how to characterize our designs.  Once we have good working model we will have much better leverage for closing deals with outside investors.

Additionally, we are going through the process of applying for an SBIR grant through the Department of Energy.  We will be given mentorship through QB3 to submit our proposal and hopefully that will make big waves for us to ride on in our path to making our batteries.

We hope to partner with companies like Tesla, Boosted Boards, as well as aerospace and racing companies to become suppliers of component parts for their systems.  We would like to make OEM shaped dashboards and interior parts for electric vehicles which serve as the battery for the vehicle.  Instead vehicles possessing embedded batteries, we will make the interior parts of the car the battery.  Using nanotechnological and biotechnological features, we will be able to make these systems more capable, environmentally friendly, and lighter.

We would like to replace the long board of the Boosted Board with a composite battery board which will store exponentially more energy than the battery packs they install on their wood boards.  We would like to integrate our battery tech into cell phones, satellites, and electric formula race cars.  We have already been approached by many companies in regards to our project, but we are still learning how to navigate through the process of making all the aspects of a company work well.  Outside funding will help with getting us the resources we need to hit go and speed up our discovery and development process.

Find out more about alGas Biotech on their website or follow them on twitter @alGASBiotech and Facebook


Tipping Point Trikes: Joel Fuller, Lane Changer

joelAn impassioned advocate for rethinking urban transportation, Joel Fuller has developed an Ultra-Light Electric Vehicle – the Tipping Point Trike – that combines a cargo bike’s utility with the stability of a tricycle.

While working in urban planning, Fuller realized that the majority of individual commuting happens within a two to five mile radius which is inefficient for cars (causing unnecessary traffic and pollution) and challenging for those who are not avid cyclists.

His hybrid vehicle offers an elegant solution that saves fuel, can be operated in a bike lane, and offers enough cargo storage for practical daily commuting. This fills the “practicality gap” between a car and a bike, rethinking patterns of transportation.

Fuller initially started as a photographer, then switched to game design, then to the urban planning field. His background as a 3D artist for game design uniquely enables him to work with urban designers in creating visualizations of potential bike and walk friendly cities that suggest how city infrastructure can be substantively changed. “Tipping point” refers to both the mechanics and concept of the vehicle- physically it “tips” to provide stability while carrying cargo, philosophically it acts as a “tipping point” for changing patterns of urban behavior. 

American Steel: What is the idea behind Tipping Point Trikes?

E-bike design from 1857

Joel Fuller: Electric bicycles are promising as a means of seeing the bicycle not solely as Americans typically view it—the exercise machine—but as a viable and practical low-cost car replacement. Americans love the independence and freedom that a bicycle lane brings and people are already taking action with cargo bikes as viable urban transportation.

My years working in the urban planning field have shown that envisioning bike- and walk-friendly cities through visualization is key to foreseeing infrastructure changes we can agree upon. I have witnessed that in the auto-dominated transportation planning of the past; there is a rising awareness of a shared vision for bicycle-use that’s promising. Through the dedication of professionals in the planning world, in bicycle advocacy, and in local government it’s been proven we can make the lane-space needed to alleviate the congestion and pollution the automobile brings.


“Tipping Point Trikes is developing just the product to meet the daily needs of commuters and shoppers by providing a practical, safe and clean alternative to the car. At PlaceWorks, we look forward to opportunities to plan for the future for products such as this.”

— Steve Noack, AICP, Principal, PlaceWorks

“Walking, transit, bicycling, and ultra-small electric vehicles will be transportation in cities of the future. The idea that one large device—your car—will work for all your transportation needs is already proving too clumsy. In compact, social, and richly textured urbanism, vehicles need to be small, nimble, quiet, and easily parked. They will be a welcome, not an obstructive, feature of the built landscape.”

— Steve Price, Urban Advantage

For more about Tipping Point Trikes, watch their great informational video:


AmSteel @ Bay Area MakerFaire!

mfrobotlogoAmerican Steel Studios will exhibit interactive displays that represent the diversity and creativity of our massive Maker Space!

Saturday, May 16 and Sunday, May 17, 10am – 6pm (PDT)

San Mateo County Event Center
1346 Saratoga Drive
San Mateo, CA 94403
Read more about the event!


MTWASqp_KEmzlPRTPiQIb6hML56ujw5KEawXX2xmLrA1. Karen Cusolito will exhibit one of her large scale “Tumble Leaf” sculptures that is a fun place for people to climb into and have a cozy seat. This unique environment lets guests feel as small as an ant as they sit inside the leaf and observe the world and activity around them.



between_dimensions_12. Between Dimensions, 2014 From ferns and trees to riverbeds and spiraling galaxies, fractals -patterns repeated at every scale- are woven into the fabric of our world. Create unique and beautiful fractals with Between Dimensions. Based on the experiments of James Crutchfield, this interactive fractal generator allows you to interact with this amazing building block for the universe firsthand. Original concept by Nathan Kandus, collaboratively realized with David Wright, Luke Wilson, Joel Thompson, and The Envelope Engineers.


mod_cot_vert_garden_detail_l3. Groundation Foundation Living Wall design, fabrication and installation. This project is a volunteer-based production that includes a variety of opportunities for people to learn new skills such as design and engineering, welding, propagating plants, installing solar energy systems, along with marketing and promotion. This living wall is the first in a series that will occupy the entire two-city block façade of the American Steel Studios building in Oakland, CA.


11116808_441777625988283_1039558565_n4. Artist Arlene Elizabeth fuses the revered and ancient arts of origami and mosaic into iconic works addressing issues of the heart. From the trials of modern Tibet and September 11th, to the simple joys of childhood and Julia Child’s cooking, her eclectic subjects become vibrant tapestries composed of thousands of painstakingly folded peace cranes. Maker interactive activity: Learn to fold winged hearts and peace cranes with Arlene; paper and inspiration provided!


14093950886_007704ca37_b5. Michael Kearney‘s Rubens’ Organ, is a bank of Rubens’ tubes of varying lengths with an audio crossover breaking the signal into different pieces for each tube. This allows for a very dynamic view as each tube is specifically sent sound in the frequencies that it can best resonate to.

Andrew Johnstone: The Big Picture

Andrew_Johnstone-1An eloquent and impassioned advocate for the transformative power of art, Andrew Johnstone works as a trompe l’oeil muralist, serves on the Alameda arts commission, and runs an art mentorship program for at-risk youth.

His aptly named “Big Picture” program teaches young graffiti offenders practical art making skills while simultaneously showing them their place in both the big picture of art history and their own communities.

In addition to redirecting these young artists’ creative impulses into a positive outlet, this brilliant program also addresses the negative environmental impacts of graffiti and the economic costs of paying to cover it up. As a classically trained trompe l’oiel muralist Johnstone is uniquely able to empathize with the impulse to paint in public spaces and to provide a powerful role model of permitted street art.

American Steel: What is the “Big Picture” Arts Project?

Andrew Johnstone: We teach young artists to stretch and prepare their own canvases, while exposing them to other fine art in order to draw challenging comparisons to their own work. We teach techniques and trade secrets they can use to produce more “karmic” art and express themselves in an undiluted and open way. They are also invited to an intimate view of the business of professional artists and seeded with the notion that their natural talent is their ticket to a rewarding life as a future arts professional.

For more about this fantastic program (with the added bonus of Johnstone’s charming Scottish accent!):


_MG_8992Following a classical European education in the arts, Johnstone became the apprentice and protégé of William Holgate (1931-2002), the worlds finest master of the decorative arts in the last 150 years, working on cathedrals, Royal Palaces and international architectural treasures. His clients recently have included The Smithsonian, Chabot Space and Science Center, Stanford Medical Center and NASA. As a teacher at University of California, Berkeley he lectured in and wrote the curriculum for the course, “Mural and Decorative Arts” and continues his calling to pass along his knowledge with the Architectural Arts Guild.

In 2009 Andrew was nominated for and became one of the Newzonia 500 ambassadors, a group of artists, scientists, and Nobel laureates working on global and sustainable solutions for a world in crisis.

Since 2005 he worked with the legendary architect/artist Rod Garrett on designing of ”The Man,” the centerpiece of the Burning Man festival, the world’s largest art event held every year in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Andrew continued after Rod’s passing in August 2011 and was given the title of “Design Steward of the Man” by Burning Man.

In October 2011 he was honored by winning the Alameda County 2011 Arts Leadership Award and was subsequently appointed by the Supervisors to a four year term as a Board member on the Alameda County Arts Commission representing District 4. He also holds a position on the Board of the Alameda County Arts Education Committee.

City Glassworks: The Visual Storytelling of Cheryl Derricotte


Cheryl Patrice Derricotte’s multilayered work spans glass, sculpture, writing, works on paper and installation.

Identities shaped by home (or homelessness); natural beauty (or disasters), memories of happiness (or loss) inspire her artwork. This results in works on glass and paper. Both materials are translucent and seemingly fragile, yet they are hearty enough to survive the passage of time between civilizations.

In addition to being an artist, Cheryl is a licensed city planner, who has served as the nonprofit developer for numerous low-income housing projects and community-based art facilities throughout the U.S.

Her strong background in anti-poverty work reveals itself in “We Buy Houses” (2014), which visualizes the foreclosure crisis in America; “Katrina’s House” (2007) and “Gentrification By Nature: The Tornado Project” (2004), both of which examine nature’s role in reshaping the real estate market.

American Steel: What do you do?

Afrikan (2014),  5" x 7"

Afrikan (2014), 5″ x 7″

Cheryl Derricotte: I use a variety of warm glass techniques. Warm glass means work fired in a kiln up to approximately 1,500°F. I enjoy layering images and text onto pieces. One of my favorite ways to layer on imagery is the gum arabic transfer technique created by Carrie Iverson. This technique uses the printmaking principles of lithography as a vehicle to create imagery on glass. My base imagery includes copyright free images, (some from the recent releases of the British Library), and my own photographs and drawings. In addition to Iverson, my work is influenced by some of the other great teachers in my life including Therman Statom and Tim Tate.

Text is an important component of my artwork. I often say that I live under the tyranny of title. A phrase will get stuck in my head, such as “We Buy Houses” and I wrestle with it until an artwork is created. Thus, many of my pieces have titles before I ever make a schematic drawing, much less cut a piece of glass. Text is often layered onto my images, by screen-printing with glass powders, sandblasting or writing with diamond-point dremel tools.

We Buy Houses” (2013/2014), is a project I developed to visualize the foreclosure crisis in America. Looking at the data on foreclosed homes in 14 American cities, I began by developing a work on paper. Afterwards I began to make each individual city in glass. Instead of numbers, houses symbolize the foreclosures. When all of the cities are rendered in this manner and considered together, the resulting work is abstract, reminiscent of both hieroglyphics and binary code.

I am a visual storyteller. My work weaves personal and political geography to confront contemporary society’s relationship to place.

We Buy Houses (2014), 18" x 24", Ink and Graphite on Handmade Paper

We Buy Houses (2014), 18″ x 24″, Ink and Graphite on Handmade Paper

AS: What are you working on in the studio right now?

CD: I am working on a new project called “Modern Homes.”  From 1908-1940, Sears Roebuck and Company sold homes through mail order catalogues.  Many of these homes still dot the American landscape.  Although the houses were initially moderately priced (less than $10,000), some have recently sold for $750,000!  What can the Sears homes tell us about corporate social enterprise, the value of home and affordability?

This type of inquiry also leads me not just to economic but also environmental concerns. I have currently been investigating the relationship of “Oil and Water” (2014/2015). This work looks at communities that live in the shadow of oil: California places like Richmond, Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach. (The latter has the distinction of being within 12 miles of three different oil refineries—Chevron, Exxon Mobil and BP/Arco).


Living in the Shadow of Oil (2014) – 5″ x 7

Cheryl Derricotte holds a Masters of Regional Planning (MRP) from the College of Architecture Art and Planning, Cornell University (1989) and a BA in Urban Affairs from Barnard College, Columbia University (1987). She is currently working towards a Masters of Fine Arts, (MFA exp. 2015), at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

You can see Cheryl’s work at the upcoming “The Art of Living Black” Open Studios @ American Steel Studios. The open studios run February 28 and March 1, 11am – 6pm; March 6, 6 – 9pm; and March 7 and 8, 11am – 6pm (enter on 20th Street).



Urban Abstraction: The multilayered work of Raymond L. Haywood

RLHAmSteel artist Raymond L. Haywood‘s screenprints and paintings offer a striking mix of graffiti influences: abstract expressionism, graphic design and industrial materials. His complex, multilayered works incorporate imagery by superimposing images in his printmaking and wearing away surfaces in his paintings. 

As a child, he avidly read comic books and loved movies and television; that affection for pop culture can be seen in his re-use of images from contemporary culture. Interestingly, he initially intended to become an oceanographer and was also an accomplished water polo player. That groundwork of scientific research and dedication to athletic practice has influenced his disciplined approach to art making.

American Steel: What do you do?

Ashe vs. Olio, paint and stencils on wood panel

Ashe vs. Olio, paint and stencils on wood panel

Raymond L. Haywood: My art practice incorporates two separate media: paintings and printmaking. The work is an emotional record, an exploration of fluctuating mood. Printing satisfies a more socially direct response to the world and painting is more atmospheric and connotative.

Art is remedy for my mood disorder, a way for me to exorcise it and understand it. Distressing surfaces and layering colors and textures allow me to externalize and witness these passing mental states. I prefer wood panels as the ground for my paintings as they endure distressing more effectively than canvas. I try to utilize diverse materials: acrylics, house paint, and aerosol paint. Distressing the wood panels is a time-intensive practice that allows for exploration of the material. The tactile quality of paper exemplifies the desired quiet in my prints.


“Blue Woman,” 12″ x 18″ silkscreen print on paper, 2014

The foundation of my art praxis is creating a visual language that captures moments in time. The texture of wood in the painting and the transparency of color in prints are the cues to the work. Shifting back and forth between these mediums gives me a broad range of tools to try and get at something timeless and ethereal.

AS: What led you to being an artist?

RLH: In high school I had many interests such as swimming, water polo, bowling, architectural drafting, biology, woodworking and graphic design. My interest in comics motivated me to design custom graphics for textiles. Early influences and inspiration were my mother Phyllis E. Posey and my step- father Robert June Posey. My grandmother and grandfather Merry and Clinton Ward also played extensive roles in my artistic development by exposing me to the Oakland Museum of Art.

I attended the University of California at San Diego under the auspices of becoming an oceanographer where my artistic desires flourished in elective undergraduate art classes. I was a walk on player for the UCSD water polo and swim teams all four years in college. In my sophomore year I chose to major in art after an invigorating study with the sculptor Italo Scanga. The opportunity for an independent study program with painter Faith Ringgold affects my creative works to this day. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in painting as well as winning an undergraduate award in art.

Safe and Sound, oil on wood, 2014

Safe and Sound, oil on wood, 2014

AS: Why American Steel?

RLH: Location location location, there is a flourishing art community and Oakland Art murmur. I really consider Oakland my heart’s home.

AS: What are you working on in the studio right now?

RLH: New landscape paintings on a large scale of distressed surfaces found on Alcatraz Island and inspired by the Ai Wei Wei installation.

Breathing while eating skittles, screenprint on paper

Breathing while eating skittles, screenprint on paper

After graduating from the University of California at San Diego, Raymond attended San Francisco State University where he obtained his Master of Fine Art degree in painting. In addition to his work in painting and printmaking he is an accomplished graphic designer and builder of commercial and residential properties as well as an accomplished quilt-maker and writer. He has been a Professor of Art at Laney College, Berkeley City College and Chabot College, with an emphasis on silkscreen printing, drawing, painting, art history and set building design for the theater.

He currently teaches silkscreen printing as an ongoing faculty member at the Richmond Art Center. In his spare time he works on his home with the loving support of his wife writer Monica Haywood and their dog Arrow in the Berkeley hills.

Mayor Libby Schaaf, Made in Oakland!

IMG_7911-768x1024As part of her inaugural celebration, Oakland’s 50th Mayor Libby Schaaf invited the public to take part in the “Made in Oakland” festival at AmSteel, celebrating the diversity, creativity and maker spirit of Oakland!

Our garden, street, studios, and gallery were packed with art, music, dance, activities and festivity. All 11,000 guests who came to celebrate created a wonderful tribute to our city and our new mayor!

Thank you to all the artists, performers, and attendees! Cheers to Oakland!


Interactive kids’ zone

From the Mayor’s press release:

“The January 11 “Made in Oakland” Inaugural Festival at American Steel Studios, a massive workspace and creative playground for artists and innovators founded in 2009, is free and open to the public. The cutting-edge art coming out of American Steel is being shown all over the world, with many iconic works featured annually at Burning Man.

The event celebrates the artistry and maker spirit of Oakland through live music, a Burning Man-style sculpture exhibit, art cars, a curated art gallery, local filmmakers, aerialists, an interactive kids zone and more. A special performance by world-renowned vertical dance pioneers BANDALOOP will highlight the celebration that will also include a variety of local dance troupes. West Oakland’s Attitudinal Healing Center will host community conversations and performances centered on peace and unity. An array of great eats from popular local food vendors and trucks – in addition to Oakland wines and craft beers – will be available for purchase.

The event is being hosted in partnership with American Steel Studios, Oakland Makers, Oakland Grown and Attitudinal Healing Center. Oakland’s own Glynn Washington, host of NPR’s Snap Judgment, will emcee the event.”

We hope you enjoy our photos from the event- click on any image to enlarge!

Compassionate Change: Sarah Rogers

sarah2Sarah Rogers’ lifelong passion for helping animals has evolved into Feral Change, a volunteer organization dedicated to Oakland’s feral and homeless cats.

Tucked into a corner of American Steel, Feral Change houses cats as they are being socialized, helps catch and neuter cats on the street, and works to educate the public about how to help. The organization is truly a labor of love run by Sarah and her dedicated volunteers who gently and patiently work with the cats and the community to effect change.

AS : Can you describe the mission of Feral Change?
SR : Oakland, like many cities, is currently unequipped to deal with feral unneutered cats who quickly breed. Unfortunately these waves of cats and kittens end up being taken to the city run animal shelter where due to the sheer number of them many end up being killed. Feral Change is one of several Bay area groups that practices TNR (Trap, neuter, return) as a way to help control this problem. Feral Change also works with a small group of feral cats and kittens (usually around a dozen) to help socialize them before they are placed in foster homes or put up for adoption. This intermediary step helps take the edge off the cats and gets them used to contact with people.

Lenny, one of the cats available for adoption

Lenny, one of the cats available for adoption

AS : How did you get involved in working with feral cats?
SR : I’ve cared for homeless cats since the tender age of eight when my first stray found his way to our front door. I became very involved with feral cats in the area after moving to Oakland in 2005. After the downturn in the economy, cities across the country saw a huge increase in the number of feral and homeless cats. Unaltered cats can multiply extremely fast, and a few unaltered cats can quickly turn into 50 within a few seasons.

AS : Why American Steel?
SR : I realized that to make the impact I wanted, I needed more space then I could accommodate at home. I called a number I saw on a lease sign (which was completely outdated) and reached Jon at Form and Reform, a nearby business. Even though I had the wrong number, Jon listened to what I was looking for and he told me I should call Karen at American Steel Studios. It turned out to be a great match with American Steel adopting several cats to assist with controlling mice and rats in the warehouse. The American Steel community has embraced the cat sanctuary with Sylvia and Robert of Brown Dirt Cowboys assisting in building enclosures for the cats and many neighbors stopping by to socialize and play with the cats.

Feral Change volunteer Chrystel

Feral Change volunteer and cat foster parent Chrystel

AS : Are you open to the public?
SR : We are open to the public, but ask that you make an appointment before stopping by- we would be happy to introduce you to our cats if you are interested in adopting, volunteering, or finding out more about us.

AS : How else can people help?
SR : If you can’t adopt you can help by promoting the work being done through TNR, talking to friends and family about adopting a garden cat, or donating cat food, paper towels, or baby wipes – just no litter please!

You can also make a donation to Cat Town or Island Cat Resources and Adoption (ICRA) in our name, or find out more information on our website donation page!





Sammers! getting socialized at American Steel

Feral Change will be participating in the American Steel Holiday Faire December 5th, from 6 – 9pm and December 6th and 7th from 11am – 6pm. 

Stop by to make a donation which will help neuter cats in low income areas and receive a handmade thank you gift (lots to choose from). You can also meet some of the cats up for adoption! Visit their website and Facebook page to find out more about the great work Sarah and her volunteers do!

Keeping a Tradition in the Modern Age: Benjamin Bowles and the Art of Fencing

bowles copyBenjamin Bowles has turned what was just “something fun to do” in college into an earnest passion that he makes his business: swordmaking for traditional fencing. Contemplative, detail-oriented and wielding an expansive knowledge that he has attained through years of experience and research, Benjamin is the real deal.

AS: What do you do?

BB: My professional title is armorer, armorer or swordmaker. The weapons I make are different than sport fencing weapons. Very different. The traditional construction methods are more important when working with traditional fencing than when doing sport fencing.


Custom restoration of an antique épée

AS: What sparked your passion for fencing? What about the sport or craft of it really struck you?

BB: The reasons for getting involved in fencing were very clear and simple. I was a hundred pounds heavier than I am now and I went to college in a place I didn’t know with people I didn’t know. I moved away from my home with the intention to change.

I signed up for an individual PE class, which meant going to the gym and logging hours. I ditched that and looked for something else, which turned out to be fencing. The tradition that I happened to find at Humboldt State was more of a martial tradition: it’s a self-defense. The person that walks away the winner is the person who got hit the least, but delivered the most touches. You’re always concerned about your own safety, and that’s something that sport-fencing does not have.

Initially I decided to start fencing to lose weight and find some friends- it kind of went hand-in-hand. Martial arts are about developing yourself. It is a physical activity, and it is very introspective. Like any martial art, you have to learn to control your physical motions, but also your emotions.

It’s hard to say why I continued to do the weapon building. Working with my hands is satisfying. I spent college doing ethereal product. You know, coming up with a creative piece. My particular genre was creative nonfiction – memoirs and reflective pieces. And they’re all kind of ethereal and introspective, but it was never quite as satisfying as building something. So, I just got joy out of weapon building, that’s why I’ve stuck with it for so long.

I realized this was my calling when I was packing to move from Arcata. I was labeling my boxes and had a very happy moment  when I used a sharpie to write on a box ‘business books,’ and saw all that was in the box were books about swords. There were armors texts and journals from the 18th century, scrap notes, schematics, and photocopies from the public library of 18th century costume design and old antique equipment catalogues. I realized, “this is my business.” It is my job to go to the library and do research and to revitalize a weird kind of culture that I think is very important for today’s age.

A French épée featuring a helical grip.

A French épée featuring a helical grip.

AS: How did you come to American Steel? What brought you here?

BB: Well, I needed a work space. My previous space in Arcata was in a shipping container and It was incredibly cold and also expensive. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was looking around and searching on Craigslist. As soon as I found the search term ‘artist studio,’ American Steel came up. I saw the website, looked around, and thought “this is pretty cool.”  The Yelp reviews were brilliant on this place, as opposed to others. I sent an e-mail on the spot. A couple of days later, Sally, American Steel’s manager, e-mailed me back: “Cool! Swords. Come on by next time you’re in town.”

She took me around on a tour and I thought it was quite cool…Solitary artisans making cool stuff. I came here and I visited, and I made a handshake agreement on the day. I said I’ll take it. I was very happy with it.

shopAS: What has AmSteel given you? How has being here influenced you or helped your business?

BB: I’m really looking forward to participating in Art Murmur. I still do my work in a solitary environment in my studio, but the art gallery is something I’ve never had in my business: the ability to put up my weapons on the wall. My business has always operated only on the Internet, I ship around the world. My last batch of weapons went out to Hawaii, New York, Florida, and then I’ve shipped to Indonesia, Austria, Australia. Being here, in a big metropolitan area, and having the ability to put up stuff on the wall, and having a little gala… It’ll be fun! It’s just something I’ve never been exposed to, and I’m happy it exists here.

Benjamin runs his business primarily online through Accredited as an instructor, he intends to begin teaching in the near future. He also plans to have an open house for the November Art Murmur, where he will display his unique weapons on the walls. Come on by to see him in action!

Interview by Malkie Scarf, American Steel Studios Intern

It’s August… art cars are popping up!

marissaThe annual Burning Man event inspires a tremendous amount of art and innovation each year. In addition to visual and performance art, it brings about a great number of beautiful and functional artistic creations in the form of “art cars,” designed to transport people around the vast event. Here are some of the cars being made at American Steel:

Marissa’s Dream Car!

“Marissa Shaw is an inspiring woman, living with Cerebral Palsy. Despite her disability, she bravely attended Burning Man last year and had an AMAZING adventure.

She can’t wait to return to the event this August. In her every day life, Marissa is autonomous and independent in her motorized wheelchair. The harsh conditions of the desert would have destroyed her motorized ride, so, last year she brought her manual chair to Burning Man. Her personal transportation was completely at the mercy of others. Marissa is a gracious and appreciative soul, and never complained.”

Enter… the Art Mobility car! 

Coordinated by Jason Anderholm, of Chester the Horse fame, this car allows Marrisa independence on the playa and a really fun ride!  With community support, this car is being built and customized for Marissa’s next Burning Man adventure.

Want to get involved? Contact the team for more info!


The Vulvatron! VULVATRON

The Vulvatron is an interactive, immersive environment open to all participants of Burning Man that celebrates the female experience in us all. 

Through an immersive multi-media and multi-sensory experience, the Vulvatron will challenge participants to question the feminine identity and will be an advocate for feminist issues.

Captivating audiences with a feminine mystique, its anatomical design pays tribute to the vulva which has been politicized, stigmatized, and ostracized.

The Vulvatron, with its strong steel curves and soft inviting cushions, is a temple to the goddess and a community connection space. Its compelling visual and interactive concepts enable a dynamic exchange of experiences between all Burning Man participants. The sculpture responds, embraces, and transforms all who choose to interact.”

Want to get involved? Visit their website for more information and work schedule.





gypsyThe Gypsy Caravan!

“From Gypsies to gold diggers and even the all-American cowboy, the caravan (or gypsy wagon) is the symbol and the true incarnation of the nomadic people. By building this and bringing it to the Playa we hope to inspire others to keep exploring beyond their limits during and after Burning Man. 

The chuck wagon concept provides for an enclosed area to protect from the harsh environment, give shelter to the elements, and carry supplies. It also encourages a meeting place where travelers exchange thoughts, ideas, stories, and wisdom. We also decided to expand and improve on the design by adding an open space in the front to allow travelers to see what lies ahead. Hence, our original concept evolved into a hybrid way of transportation.”

AmSteel’s Jorge Gimenez was the chief fabricator and the beautiful and extensive CNC was done by AmSteel’s Lou Brocksen of School Street Technologies.







And Lastly… The Squid Car by Ulan McKnight!