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A Dashing SHOW of Contraptionalia

Artist Jim Smith looks to the Future by looking to the Past

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Jim Smith's steampunk-inspired sculpture exhibition Inventors Left to Their Own Devices has already brought a touch of fancy to the foyer of the Museum of Science & History on the Southbank. Now the Jacksonville-based artist promises to kick the whimsy factor into overdrive with a special, family-friendly evening that will bring the world of steampunk to life.

Billed as Jim Smith's Improbable Sci-Show, it's an art reception and performance piece in one. It's held, appropriately, on Friday the 13th of April, hosted by Smith's longtime-albeit fictional-muse, Martha Doyle Jennings. He hints a time-traveler may visit the show.

Of course, you must suspend your disbelief for the duration. Like all steampunk creations, this is science-fiction, with an emphasis on fiction. You'll find just enough authentic historical detail to ground the action in the Victorian era but from there on out, all bets are off. The alternate reality of steampunk is an ultramodern world where anything is possible--and it's made possible by then-newly discovered 19th-century technology.

Forget computers. Steampunk is all about contraptions.

To prevent any confusion, all of Smith's steampunk works bear this disclaimer: "WARNING! This display, which combines the art of assemblage sculpture with the art of storytelling, contains alternative facts."

Likewise, the characters in Jim Smith's Improbable Sci-Show aren't real time-travelers, but actors bedecked with steampunk's signature goggles, gears, breeches and corsets.

Smith has been riding the steampunk wave since it was a humble swell. The literary genre label was coined in the 1980s to match the equally newfangled niche cyberpunk. Steampunk was so new at the time that Smith, a Connecticut native who paid his dues in New York before locating to Jacksonville in 1977, didn't even know what it was.

"I was just making sculptures," Smith recalls, "and friends and students started telling me I was doing steampunk."

Steampunk has become a subcultural force to be reckoned with over the ensuing years, outgrowing its literary roots and stretching its tentacles into everything from film to fashion. It's all the rage at comic conventions and cosplay events. Smith embraces the aesthetic but, even though his brand of steampunk shares much of the established iconography, it bends it in a different direction.

"Like bluegrass needs a banjo," explains Smith, "steampunk needs gears and brass and pulley systems. Those are some of the elements that make it instantly identifiable as steampunk. Where my work differs is in tone. Most steampunk is lighthearted or tongue-in-cheek. My sculptures aren't made to look fun. They're made to look old and possibly dangerous. And they're all attributed to real historical figures."

This gravitas probably has something to do with Smith's formative years in the no-nonsense 1970s New York City art world as well decades of experience as a professional instructor. He has been teaching art at The Bolles School since landing in Jacksonville some 40 years ago.

Yet there is a playful side to Smith's steampunk œuvre. By his own admission, he's drawn to the genre's theatrical side.

"If I had to do it over again," he says, "I might've been a magician. I want people to believe what they're seeing. I don't want to cheat or lie, but I want to make art that's credible enough that people are willing to follow the story even if they know it's just a story."

So Smith created his own mythology around his steampunk sculptures. According to his lore, Martha Doyle Jennings is the great-granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Smith met the heiress in France in 1987, just in time to salvage the contents of a long-forgotten Doyle family property on land that was soon to be seized for the Channel Tunnel project.

Inside the barn was a treasure trove of machines created by the 19th century's most celebrated storytellers. There's Edgar Allan Poe's Device to Treat Melancholia, which induces euphoria by delivering chemical-infused metal spheres into the sinus cavity. There's Jules Verne's Gravity Suspension Device, a brass-plated hodgepodge of knobs, tubes and reservoirs that appears to hold aloft a blue square in thin air. There's Mark Twain's Spirit World Auto-Writer, a literary Ouija Board of sorts. These and five other similar machines comprise the MOSH exhibition.

The fanciful origin story addresses a very practical problem for Smith. "I hate writing artist's statements," Smith says. "They make you sound either stupid or pompous. So rather than write an artist's statement, I wrote a steampunk story."

For all their fantastic trappings and elaborate backstories, however, these works continue Smith's earliest explorations into sculpture and assemblage art. "There's not much difference between my steampunk sculptures and my assemblages made in the '70s," he says. "I'm still putting objects together and making thematic connections between them. It's like syntax in poetry. If you can connect the right words in the right order, you can communicate something that transcends individual elements."

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The opening reception for Jim Smith's Improbable Sci-Show is 6:30-8 p.m. Friday, April 13 at MOSH, 1025 Museum Cir., themosh.org. The show runs through April.

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