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Ashley Arabian
Karen Cusolito – American Steel Studios Author:   ·  November 1st, 2012

When pulling up to American Steel Studios in Oakland, California, on the gloomy day I chose to interview Karen Cusolito, my mouth dropped. What I saw was a large, open space in front of two massive warehouses, holding space for several metal sculptures in human form up to 30 feet tall. This staggering view sparked my excitement to walk inside and see the woman who created these structures.

I walked into the warehouse to hear power tools buzzing through the space, which was filled with art pieces of various forms: robots, western saloons, sculptures, and as I’ve been told, screenprinting, painting, photography, welding- you name it.

We walked into the office of American Steel to shake Karen’s hand, which was surprisingly tiny. Our interviewee was petite and beautiful, and rock hard as one would have to be to make these sculptures. Not only did she build those staggering structures outside, but she manages this six acre art space that hosts 150 artists to create as they please. Here is our interview…

Ashley: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the space and your relationship with it?
KAREN CUSOLITO: Back in 2005, my partner and I were commissioned by Burning Man to build a sculpture, and the sculpture needed to be 30 feet tall. So I needed a space taller than that and the studio space we had at the time just wasn’t big enough for the project. I remembered visiting this building the year before and I remembered it had really high ceilings, it had bridge cranes (5, 7 and 10 tons), and it had a lot of the amenities a large-scale industrial artist would need. We came and borrowed space from one of the only two tenants in the building at the time. We used it for 8 weeks, we built the project, packed up, and left.

Dianna Agron's You, Me and Charlie - Karen CosulitoThen we got another commission, so we came back the next year (also for Burning Man), and built that piece in 9-12 weeks. Then in 2007, Burning Man gave us a grant to produce Crude Awakening, and I knew we were going to need a much bigger space for that. So we leased this entire space for ourselves.

A: Can you tell me about Crude Awakening?
KAREN: Crude Awakening was produced in 2007, and the theme for Burning Man that year was Green Man. It was seven large-scale steel figures in different postures of worship representing religion from around the world, and they are paying homage to a 100 foot tall oil derrick. Each figure had fire effects and you could climb the oil derrick and get a beautiful sweeping vista of the playa, so it was a really nice way to engage with art: 100 feet in the air looking down at the 30 foot tall structures was a really unique perspective to have.

On the night of the performance, it started out with a sound of this wailing siren from World War II, which is like a whale cry but on a much bigger scale. There was also a fog machine that could fill a square mile with fog in just a minute or so. So suddenly everything was transformed and the space became more oddly defined by sound and fog and getting a little energized. Then there is a patriotic sound of a musical score and fireworks, and after about a minute, the musical track takes a militant twist and all the fireworks turn red. Suddenly this space now looks like a battlefield. It’s (I’m getting goosebumps) one of those moments where something was designed to make you feel not well, and you knew something was wrong.

So the music started

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About The Author

I am a restless writer with a love for the open road. I believe travel opens our souls, reading opens our minds, and art opens our hearts. I aim to see the world, stay close to nature, eat a lot of food, and write about it all with the hope to inspire and be inspired.

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