In 2014, at Steampunk Invasion, Dallas, a man stood, surrounded by enthusiastic con-goers. As he closed his address, he told them, “Do what you do. Be who you are. Support each other and the community.” The man was Kevin Steil, the Airship Ambassador. Since 2010, through his blog first then his website, “The Airship Ambassador”, Kevin has worked hard to foster the sense of community in the world of Steampunk, with incredible results.
FB: Kevin, your Airship Ambassador website is a focal point for the Steampunk community worldwide. Before looking at the service you provide through it, take us back to where it all started.
KS: As with so many things, it started with a small, simple thought. I was at the Nova Albion convention in California in 2010, attending a panel on community, and I thought “I have something to say”. That led to thinking about writing a blog, and then actually doing it.
That’s half the battle for any idea – moving from concept and intent to actual execution. Aside from writing my initial essays, I knew I needed to find a niche, and one that I could be good at. Other steampunk blogs were already around, like Steampunk Scholar, Beyond Victoriana, and Silver Goggles.
First , I needed a name. Airship Ambassador sprang into mind instantly, but I was hesitant to leap right at that first thought, just because it was first. After a great deal of thought, I realized that it was the right name, for me and for what I wanted to accomplish. An Ambassador meets people and brings them all together. So, interviews seemed like the next natural step. It has been so great to talk to people from all aspects and corners of the steampunk community. Via email, social media, and in person, there are so many wonderful steampunks all around the world to get to know. Interview #100 will happen before the end of 2016.
Eventually, my interest to know and share more about steampunk led to creating the website. It was still early-ish days and information about steampunk was scattered around the internet a fair bit. My intent was to create a one-stop-shop for people to quickly find resources and information instead of spending time, like I had, trying to find something.
Steampunk kept growing and now searching for information is like trying to drink from a fire hose. There are thousands of photos and images, more books, more events, more web series, more and more and more. Airship Ambassador still focuses on sharing the news, information, and resources from that flood of information.
From that flood came another project, The Steampunk Museum. It’s ambitious, but I want to document all of the people, events, and artefacts of our community while it’s happening. We need to remember our history while we are creating, and then preserve it for all the steampunks yet to come.
FB: You are responsible for the organising of ‘Steampunk Hands around the World’ project, and we heard that one of the by-products of this interesting venture will be a bilingual Steampunk anthology, published by Luna Press Publishing. Tell us about this fascinating multicultural project.
KS: This is another project which started out which such a tiny, simple idea. I was instant messaging with my friend, Josue’ Ramos, of MundoSteampunk in Spain, and I thought how great it was that technology enabled us to not only stay in touch but also talk real time. And then I thought how great it was to have a steampunk friend nearly on the other side of the planet, and that we could share our passion for steampunk with each other as creators. We were reaching our steampunk hands out around the work to shake in friendship and collaboration.
Those feelings were worth sharing, as well as encouraging other steampunks to meet each other and learn more about steampunk in other countries. Steampunk is more than just what we experience at home, or locally. It’s more than the regional conventions. It’s truly global and I hoped that this project would make it easier for people to experience that. From what I’ve seen over the years, people bring not only their own personal outlook and choices, but they also bring their local and regional culture and society into their expression of steampunk.
First, I thought I’d write a blog post basically saying that, then I thought maybe I could round up a few other steampunk friends to write something. I figured maybe I’d get ten people, tops, and maybe we could all post the same day. That would be cool, right?
In the end, several dozen people expressed interesting in writing up something, and we posted for the entire month of February. It has been so educational and rewarding to see the different perceptions and expressions of steampunk from literally around the world. There is so much inspiration to draw on, and people are so amazingly creative. I wish I spoke every language or had a Universal Translator so I could visit with all of these great steampunks everywhere.
The project has become a recurring annual event, and Steampunk Hands IV launches February 1, 2017 with a theme of “Steampunk: Making Life Better”.
FB: Tell us about the ‘Airship Ambassador’. You could have picked many other personas to bring Steampunk to life, but you chose this one. What’s the story behind the costume?
KS: It didn’t actually start off as a persona. I made a conscious decision when I started the blog and website that I was just going to be myself. It seemed like a lot of work to “be” a steamsona and try to keep it separate from “me”. So, the website was call Airship Ambassador, and I was just me, running it.
Somewhere along the way, though, I suppose the names weren’t just linked, they were synonymous. I went from being described at conventions as “Kevin Steil, from Airship Ambassador” to “Kevin Steil, the Airship Ambassador”. People were greeting me as Mr. Ambassador.
For a long time, before all of my steampunk work, I suppose I’ve done ambassador type actions. I guess it’s just part of who I am and what I enjoy doing – bridging gaps and bringing people together. I’m also a total information junkie – I want to know everything and share it all with everyone.
And my Ambassador coat? A friend made it, along with several other of my outfits. She had done Ren Faire type outfits for herself and her husband, and done costumes for her daughter’s high school drama club. We talked about what I liked in various period outfits and other costumes, and she later sent me a sketch of what she had in mind to make. I knew it would be good, but as I opened the envelope, I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. I opened it up, pulled out the drawing, gasped and cried out like a little school kid! It was AMAZING. I was so impressed with the design she had come up with.
It took months of hand sewing to create. When the time came for me to pick it up before a convention, she had it all staged on display, like a fashion show. Even though I had seen it several times in progress, when I came around the corner and saw it … I stopped dead in my tracks and was literally speechless, and very nearly breathless! It was so stunning, and I kept thinking, “I get to wear this, I really get to take this home and wear this!”
It’s like a second skin now, and when I wear it, I know and feel that I really am The Airship Ambassador.
FB: Steampunk can be expressed in many ways: where do you feel is at its most ‘alive’ in your life?
KS: Oh, gosh. Hmm, well, there’s the clothes, and artwork, and some props and accessories, but I think I’m most energized when I get to share steampunk – the idea and the activities – with others who are interested in hearing about it. Coworkers ask about the conventions I attend, friends and family read my posts, and I get emails all the time from people wanting to know more about it in general, or for an event or a project. Students and teachers, and media and entertainment people, get in touch with their questions, and I am always so happy to share what I know with them.
If I could, I’d be learning and sharing about steampunk in all of its facets 24/7/365.
FB: Speaking of Steampunk and its expressions, do you think there is a place for it, in the school system?
KS: Yes, most definitely, and I’m always eager to talk with teachers about how they use it or want to use it. Steampunk as engaging fictional stories can be really useful as a means to talk about “what was” in real history, and to explore “what could be” in our current world. Steampunk is useful to explore how different things could be when applying our twenty-first century knowledge and attitudes to the past, and then extrapolating things forward to imagine how life could be today.
Steampunk has helped me learn about all kinds of things from the past and the present, and has helped me gain a much wider perspective and appreciation of people, life, and meaning than I even did before. It wasn’t just learning more about history beyond what very little biased narratives were presented in school, or imagining alternate realities – it became having a greater awareness, perhaps empathy, of how finely nuanced each individual really is. How there is no ‘normal’ , just a collection of traits and actions which are more or less common. How every single person has something to offer and share, and be proud of. How some aspect of ourselves, no matter how small, is reflected in other people.
Circling back to school, steampunk might be the theme or example that engages students to really learn something, to work out not just who they are right now but who they could be, and to learn lessons from stories and day dreams to help create a better tomorrow.
Maybe they’ll learn, and enjoy, more about music by listening to the wide variety of music from the 1800s. Or learn about the nineteenth century roots of today’s technology and science. Or learn that some of the foods they eat today were common foods of yesteryear, as well as learning just how very different life was, in so many unconsidered ways, from today. Each of those things can be a learning opportunity, for a school test, or a life exam.
FB: What does the future of Steampunk hold?
KS: To paraphrase the start of a common political speech in the United States, “The state of steampunk is strong!”
Steampunk may not grab mainstream media headlines like it did a few years ago, but there is still a groundswell of activity, and effects of the interest in steampunk are evident all around us.
This year, there are more Shakespearean plays being done in a steampunk style than ever before; commercial businesses are remodelling in steampunk themes or at least in colour palettes. There are more books being published, more local events for people to attend, more artwork, more cosplay… just more of everything.
Steampunk continues to evolve, and each person in the community adds to it and shapes it. There are some core items that most people would agree with, and some fringe items that not everyone will engage with, but all of us have amazing creativity that builds something new every day.
There’s no central canon imagery or story to follow, so we have a blank slate to explore and create our own alternate 1800s world. There will be nostalgia, there will be romanticized imaginings, and there will be dreams. Glorious, colourful, anachronistic dreams that somehow manage to come to life in some form. The future of steampunk is strong, and holds the best possibilities for each of us. Make the most of it.