Like many of us, Joe Mross lives much of his life in a world of quaint imagination. Unlike most of us, though, the 45-year-old Eugene artist is building that world – one enormous piece at a time.
Coming rapidly together at the north Eugene farm where he lives and works is his latest imaginative structure, the Teluriz. The size of a travel trailer on tall Erector-set-like steel legs, the Teluriz looks like a rusting steam-powered “Star Wars” sand walker. Fully assembled, it will stand 21 feet tall.
Here’s a bit of the text Mross offers, explaining the vehicle’s background: “Lost Nomads of Vulcania is a steampunk-inspired gypsy encampment featuring the Teluriz, one of the few remaining Vardo Class Steam Walkers built by the last surviving members of Captain Nemo’s crew. The intrepid explorer will be able to enter the Teluriz through the hatch and contemplate the mysterious disappearance of the crew and the ephemera left behind. What were they doing so far from the island of Vulcania in the desert wasteland of Blakroxiti?”
From its wooden interior, the Teluriz will offer glass turrets for observation and a balcony with suspended lanterns. Access from the ground is up a ladder through a metal hatch.
At the end of August, Mross and a crew of eight assistants will disassemble the Teluriz and pack the whole thing into a truck – not steam-powered – which they’ll drive to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the annual Burning Man festival.
Burning Man, in case you haven’t encountered it, began in in the late 1980s as a celebration of art and music, radical self expression, cultural libertarianism and New Age spirituality. The one-week festival draws 50,000 people to camp out in the desert each August to enjoy music, large art installations and revelry.
Mross has been going as a participant since 2008. This year he is going as an official exhibitor: His concept for the Teluriz drew a seed grant earlier this year from the festival.
Mross said he wasn’t allowed to say how much money was involved, but that the grant covered the cost of materials for the Teluriz – for which he bought 3,500 pounds of steel.
Burning Man’s art theme for 2014 is “caravansary,” which fits perfectly with some ideas Mross had been contemplating about caravans and Gypsy wagons. “I’ve long been wanting to do a piece like this, where we could take a lot of the things we’ve learned over the years and really put them into our vision,” Mross said during a visit to the farm this week.
“It’s a big jump for us to take on a piece like this in the middle of everything else we’re doing.”
“We” in this case means Mross’ company, Archive Designs, which creates custom metal work with a 19th century flair. Think hand-beaten copper kitchen hoods with repoussé designs, wrought-iron light fixtures, strap hinges that might have come from a medieval English barn. The company’s clients have included Barbra Streisand and some software millionaires.
Full disclosure: I met Joe almost 20 years ago when he was just starting out. My wife and I were looking for someone to design and build an addition to our rural Creswell home. Joe and his father, Gene Mross, were building Arts & Crafts-influenced homes around Eugene in those days, and the addition to our house turned into a two-story Craftsman-style structure with an all-wood interior, much of it peeled logs. Last year the two of them finished our remodeling when Joe designed and Gene built a three-story tower next to the house, complete with custom metal work throughout.
Gene now works full time in his son’s shop and has as at least as much manic energy for antiquarian projects as Joe does. For the past few months Gene has been cutting and welding sheet steel into I-beams and trusses, assembling them and then aging them with rust.
The father and son team’s slide into the past probably started in earnest about six years ago. That was when Joe first went to Burning Man, and about that time he started holding an annual Halloween party at the farm. The first party was pirate themed, and for it Gene and Joe built an entire pirate ship outside the barn. It’s still there, though its sails are tattered with age. It was also about that time that Joe discovered steampunk, the cultural movement that has fixated on the imaginary Victorian/Edwardian past of Jules Verne, leather goggles, hot air balloons and steam engines. The label provided a perfect vehicle for much of Joe’s artistic energy, and the annual party became a steampunk bash. Two years ago for the party he built the front end of a steam locomotive, which provided a backdrop for the fire dancers. Last fall, Mross and Eugene artist and Steve LaRiccia – himself a Burning Man fan – collaborated on a one-night exhibit titled “Life in the Age of Steampunk” at the New Zone Gallery, which LaRiccia runs downtown.
“Eight years ago I hadn’t heard of steampunk,” Joe Mross said. “And so I kind of went through a time warp when I discovered it.”
He may need a different kind of time warp if he’s going to make it to Burning Man on time. Earlier this week, the Teluriz was no more than an unusual looking steel flatbed trailer with a nice wood floor; the structure of the crawler was yet to come, and the legs hadn’t quite been finished.
Gene’s pickup truck, which in one version of the plan was going to pull a trailer loaded with the Teluriz to Nevada, had lost its transmission, and they were now thinking of renting a truck for the trip. Meanwhile there were a lot of nights of woodwork and welding in their future.
For Mross, steampunk is all about possibility. “You can really go off in any direction you want,” he said. “There is so much room for creativity. And there is so much romance in the 1890s: Time travel. Invention. Exploration. A reality that is more swashbuckling than the one we live in.”