Steampunk Art

Back on May 5 I attended a fundraising luncheon for a community based program called Wraparound.  The event this year was held at the St. Thomas Public Art Centre and featured food, a silent auction and a guest speaker.  Pretty typical fundraiser all in all.  Nicely organized, good setting and an engaging speaker.  

McDougall’s “Elgin” will be hanging in my office
In the midst of this, the art centre has a small shop at the front featuring the work of local artists.  Paintings, prints, sketches, necklaces, bracelets and rings.  At the bottom of the countertop display was a ring unlike anything I had seen.  It intrigued me immediately.  I tried it on.  I’m sure it was made for me.  I hesitated on buying it since I had just purchased a print from another local artist, Clark MacDougall.  
I was told by the volunteer at the centre that the piece was made by a young local artist who would be thrilled that I was interested.  I went home and thought about it.  As it turned out, there was more money in my savings account than my wife thought so I made a quick withdrawal and went back the next day.  Still there, I made the buy and went to work.
Still intrigued by it’s design, I contacted the art centre.  I wanted to meet the artist and learn more about him, his art, and his inspiration.
Riley’s work
It took us nearly three weeks to finally make it happen but 24 year old Riley Eichler and I met at Tim Hortons in the west end of St. Thomas.  By now I knew that the design was called “Steampunk,” although I didn’t really know what that meant.  Riley explained it comes from a belief that during Victorian times, technology had progressed further than the historical record would indicate.  Steampunk art creates personas or devices that reflect that time period using technology such as gears.  While he doesn’t consider his work as steampunk, he says it’s a label that people have put on his work and he’s good with that since it’s recognized.
Whenever I arrange to meet someone for the first time, I am always shocked how two strangers can come to a common destination and figure out who they are there to meet; No indication of who the person is, what they will look like or what they will be wearing.  I guess we stereotype and hope for the best.  
I did some homework on him.  I know Riley is a young artist.  I have listened to his music – he plays in a band too – and knew I wouldn’t be looking for a guy in a suit.  More likely, I expected something alternative and grudge-like.  Fortunately, when I went into Tim Hortons, there was only one young guy sitting by himself.  Glasses, mohawk, stretched ear lobe, leather jacket with spikes on the shoulders and a pierced lip.  
Riley and I are from different worlds.  We have different outlooks.  He believes that man created God.  I believe that God created man.  His friends say, “If there’s a hell, I’ll see you there.”  Mine say, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.”
Either way, here we were.  Two worlds colliding over coffee and art.  No judgements, just the opportunity to share in an interest.  Isn’t this how it should be?
Inside of a watch

Riley began this artistic venture when he found himself with some broken watches.  He tore them apart and found creativity.  “I liked all the stuff.  It was shiney and pretty.  No matter how cruddy on the outside it’s like a jewel on the inside.”  
We could learn from this.  
He explains further that there are, “so many angular pieces, gears, colours, steels and brasses.  I like to mess around with the different forms and textures…It’s a spectacular array of colour and texture that nobody sees.”  It’s from this inspiration of design and texture that he makes something crazy and new.
When I bought the ring almost three weeks ago, I wasn’t even sure if I should wear it.  At the end of my first day I had cut just below my knuckle and still had a light scab on the day I met with Riley.  I asked if he expected people should wear his art.  “Definitely,” he said.  “I consider them to be more like sculptures than jewelry.  They are delicate, but they are made to wear for special occasions.”  I wear mine.  I like it.  It’s a talking piece for sure.
Steampunk art, as his jewelry is classified, speaks to Riley.  “I like the aspect of a statement on recycling.  Taking old antiquated technology and creating something new and bring attention to it.”
Riley doesn’t identify himself as a jeweler.  He is an artist.  A musician.  A photographer.
Another watch.  Such detail.
In high school, he took music up to grade 11.  Sitting behind a drum set during that time in life he came to the realization, “I am not a very good percussionist.”  
He also took art in high school and says, “I couldn’t draw so well.”
After realizing he couldn’t draw and wasn’t a master percussionist, Riley explains, “I took drama class and it helped me come out of my shell, speak to a lot of people and became more comfortable with who I am.  The arts programs are pretty important.  Some people shrug them off but if you are the right kind of person for it, it’s what you need.”  
I guess it’s the same with sports.  I am not an athlete and I’ve never been mistaken for one.  There are many students though, who find their role in school, and in life, through sports.  For many, sports isn’t just about a healthy lifestyle, it’s about who they are in the same way that others find themselves through art.
But we wouldn’t consider eliminating sports to same extent like we do the arts.
Riley’s band.
Today, Riley is a musician and an artist.  He is a vocalist and background track composer with Orphan Grinder, a photographer with a unique eye, and ring designer with a flair for contemporary history in his design.
Before coming to St. Thomas, Riley lived in London, Ontario.  “I grew up in White Oaks, very multi cultural.  Moving here it’s like reverse culture shock.  Here, there’s a bias but it has gotten better over the last few years.”  He adds, “Racism is old fashioned and has no ground in the global village that we live in today.  We all have to band together.” 
Having lived in St. Thomas for the past nine years, Riley shared his perspective on the city.  Many youth and young adults talk openly about their disdain for the city.  Most talk about leaving and never coming back.  I’m sure the talk is the same in most cities among the younger residents.  Riley wears an “I Love St. Thomas” button on his spiked leather jacket so I asked him why he stays.  “When I moved here I loved this town. The train was going up and down the tracks.  They had Alma College (which later burned down.  Google satellite images were taken the day of the fire and you can see it if you zoom in on city).  So much cool stuff, independent businesses downtown and now they are all gone.  There’s nothing to discover in downtown except boarded up buildings.  I’m frustrated.  I loved what the town was about.”
Much of the city’s history as the “Railway Capital of Canada” is vanishing, but they are working on the train station.  There may be no trains running anymore and CN is in the midst of tearing out the remaining tracks, but we’ll have a train station.  There’s also a museum, but I personally don’t know anyone who has been there.
“This town seems to want to continue pushing the industrial factory but this is the information age.  It’s like they are too stubborn to see it,” explains Riley.  “I think it would be cool if they would offer up some of the space for electric cars.  Modernize the town and create jobs.  People would want electric cars.  It’s a big enough town for people to use electric cars to get around.  We could make an impact on the world if they had the guts to do it.  It’s not ‘safe’ to do this.”
Interesting.  Not where I saw the conversation going.  I intended to meet Riley about the unique ring design and we end up discussing local economics.
I wouldn’t have suspected a strong opinion on business, but Riley was quick to correct me and explain that music is business.  “In the band you have to be taken seriously.  You have to know what you are doing or people will walk all over you.”
What’s your inspiration?  “My need to be creative.  I kinda happens,” he says.  He plays piano every day, but creativity comes in waves.  “I do my art when I feel like it.”  It isn’t forced.  Maybe art can’t be forced?  “I don’t always work on the jewelry.  It’s when I have the creative spark, whenever it hits me.”
My ring – a Riley Eichler original
My ring was made three years ago.  It’s the first piece that Riley made.  The round centre is from a lady’s watch.  There is a brass gear just under it from an old pocket watch.  The two scythe shaped piece came from the inside of a large mens watch, with the smaller individual gears on each side from a woman’s watch and a pocket watch.  All to come together into one piece of art.
Since then he has sold pieces in Arizona and Minneapolis.  My ring is the only one in Ontario, but he did sell a pendent here a few years ago.  Riley hopes to open an online store with etsy.com, but in the mean time you can view his art online at his deviant art page and make payment arrangements through Paypal.  His work isn’t priced.  He says, “I see what the customer wants.  I’m fair.”
What do you want your future to look like?  “I hope to get a record contract sometime and have a store to sell my art.”
Nice meeting you Riley.  I wish you success in your art and ambitions.


Everyone has a story.  We all won’t agree on everything, but we can love each other and be passionate about what we do.
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