Cape Gazette

Steampunk Tree House debuts at Dogfish in Milton

By Rob Kunzig | Jul 02, 2010
To the average viewer, the Steampunk Tree House poses a few questions: What’s Steampunk? And where’s the tree?

Standing 40 feet tall from riveted-steel trunk to burnished branches, the curious addition to Dogfish Head’s Milton brewery is raising more than a few eyebrows.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Brewmaster Flores Delée, observing the Tree House from the curb - his favorite view, he said, because he can see the Ziemann fermentation tanks rising behind the twisted metal branches.

Dogfish Head Brewmaster Flores Delée enjoys the view from the curb – from here, he can see the Tree House’s retro technology contrasted against the high-tech fermenting tanks behind it. Below, ome hold ribbon-cuttings, but Dogfish Head holds beer-smashings – artist Andrew O’Keefe takes aim with a bottle of Life & Limb. Shown at the celebration are (l-r) artist David Shulman; Dogfish Head President Sam Calagione; artist Sean Orlando; and O’Keefe.
A stained-glass window makes the Tree House interior feel warm and whimsical. A series of levers operate a calliope. When pulled, said artist Andrew O’Keefe, they produce a deep, soulful steam whistle.
“It’s the ultimate in brewing engineering,” Delée said, referring to the tanks, “and the ultimate in creative engineering.”

The Tree House came to Milton by way of San Francisco, shipped on two flatbeds and accompanied by a cadre of artists from Five Ton Crane Arts Group. After two weeks of marathon construction, they joined Dogfish officials in formally inaugurating the towering sculpture Friday, June 25. Wearing a pair of safety goggles, Vice President Mariah Calagione hurled a bottle of Life & Limb beer at the tree’s rivet-studded front door. The bottle exploded in yeasty suds and the dozens gathered cheered.

President and founder Sam Calagione said Dogfish Head found a kindred spirit in the Tree House and Five Ton Crane Arts Group. Dogfish launched in 1996 with a Luddite bent, shunning mass-produced commercialism in favor of an artisan ethos: “Analog beer for a digital age,” the first bumper sticker read.

Calagione said Dogfish was Steampunk before they were even aware of the cultural movement, which bases itself on the Victorian-age science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Rather than shooting to the stars at the speed of light, Steampunks inhabit a world of burnished brass, toothy gears and coal-fired steam.

Calagione said Dogfish often seeks out kindred causes or events for beer donations. While surveying the field, an employee stumbled upon the Steampunk Tree House, a spindly work of sculpture welded, hammered and riveted together by more than 50 artists. Scanning the website, Calagione said he connected with the group’s communal philosophy and devotion to artisanship.

The brewery’s interest came at an opportune time. The Tree House was built in 2007 for Burning Man, a rustic festival held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert; it made another appearance at California’s Coachella music festival in 2008. In between gigs, the disassembled Tree House sat in a warehouse. Keeping it was getting to be an expensive proposition. After the brewery agreed to pay tens of thousands of dollars shipping the Tree House across the country, Five Ton sold the Tree House for $1.

“From day one, the goal was to find a good home for it,” said artist Sean Orlando. “And Dogfish is a very good home.”

Orlando relishes the hands-on aspect of Five Ton’s projects – and his hands have the scars to prove it. With blunt fingers and knobby knuckles, they look worn and punished. Recently, a missed sledgehammer blow burst one of his fingertips like a grape (“We were building a rocket ship,” he explains. “We’ve never built a rocket ship before.”) While the Five Ton crew works without hierarchy, the Tree House is Orlando’s baby. He explained the mindset behind the rivets and beams.

“In many ways, it was inspired by the craftsmanship of the Victorian era,” he said. Looking up at the tree, he said, “It’s a commentary on a time when people put their artisanship into creating really beautiful buildings and putting an emphasis on all the details.”

Alan Rorie, formerly a neurobiologist, was also drawn to the physicality of Five Ton projects.

“I got tired of my whole world being an abstraction,” Rorie said. Sitting before the Tree House in a white T-shirt and khakis, the San Francisco Ph.D said he got into metalworking after burning out on concepts.

“It was all about the manipulation of data,” he said. “It’s all fascinating, but it was unsatisfying.”

Orlando’s vision is grounded in 16-gague sheet metal, but it has conceptual trappings – after all, Orlando graduated from University of California, Berkley, where he studied site-specific sculpture.

“What if we had no more trees?” he said. “What if we forgot what trees look like?” He acknowledges that the Tree House’s twisted limbs and dull metal shine can seem intimidating, even scary.

“It’s not happy,” he said. “I think that’s okay. There’s nothing harmful in here. I hope it will allow people to remove themselves from the daily status quo.”

As Five Ton artists celebrated the end of construction by playing bocce, Orlando seemed reserved, even melancholic. Before following it to Milton, he’d assembled and disassembled the Tree House three times; this, his fourth assemblage, would be the last.

“It is a little emotional,” he said. “It has such a soul, because it was built by a large community of people.”

Calagione said the Tree House would be used for departmental meetings. Sadly, he said, liability issues will keep the sculpture fenced in and closed to the public. Orlando said he’s enjoyed spending time in the Tree House’s new community. While the breakneck construction schedule has allowed little room for leisure, he said Five Ton artists found time to enjoy lunches at Irish Eyes. After getting to know Milton, he said he was happy to keep the Tree House away from the well-trodden tourist towns.

“Milton is much less touristy than Rehoboth, and that’s OK,” he said. “It’s important that it’s in a safe place.”

Artist Jay Kravitz seemed beat after pulling long hours. He was with the Tree House at Burning Man, where he watched a lunar eclipse from the balcony. He said he wished the rest of the Tree House’s 55 artists could be in Milton to see off Five Ton’s first creation. Smiling thinly, he echoed Orlando.

“We’re just happy it’s going to a good home,” he said.

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