Smile Politely

Flight of Fancy

When I first met Enki McAigean, he was dressed in “everyday steampunk” — a rugged, leather vest, a scally cap, and a necklace that he’d made himself out of metal gears.

Enki’s real name is Matt Nyberg, but he goes by Enki (his steampunk name). He’s originally from Southern California, where he was raised in a million dollar home, until his dad lost his digital typesetting business. “I hung out with punks, people at train stations, and Goths, so when my parents suddenly went from being multi-millionaires to living paycheck to paycheck, it was nothing new for me,” Enki says.

Enki was drawn into steampunk by a friend of his back in California who told him, “You like science, technology, history, and art — you would love steampunk.”

“It’s everything I love in one cool little box!” he says.

The Airship O’Reilly is a group of steampunks in Champaign-Urbana who fly a make-believe airship at the turn of the century. A bunch of the crewmembers live together in a house in Urbana.

When you type their address into Google, it’s labeled, “Airship O’Reilly: Captain’s Quarters.” But it’s not an airship. It’s a square, brick house with a wooden stake that reads “Captain’s Quarters” stuck in the front lawn.

Airships are a popular form of transportation in steampunk stories. They’re sort of like blimps, but larger, with an internal support structure known as the keel that enables them to accommodate an entire crew and traverse oceans.

Adie O’Reilly (real name Lucy) and Samael G’Navtan (real name Sam) are working on creating blueprints of the Airship O’Reilly. It’s common for steampunks to create blueprints of their airship, even if they never plan on building one. “I’ve devoted an entire sketchbook to it,” Sam says.

Enki assures me that it is perfectly possible to build your own airship. “You just have to get it approved by the FAA,” he says. “One of my goals in life is to actually make an air gondola, which is a 1–4 person very small airship; if you fly it under 100 feet, it’s legal, without having to go to the FAA.”

Enki’s Airship Recipe:

  • One large canvas balloon
  • Molasses
  • A very light frame
  • Helium

“I know of only one person who’s actually made an airship,” Enki says. “Though I’m sure the steampunk city in New Zealand has probably made one by now.”

Anastasia initially had more of a literary interest in steampunk and didn’t really live the lifestyle at all until she moved to Champaign and joined the Airship O’Reilly:

When I was younger I kind of got obsessed with this time that I couldn’t live in,” she says. “But I didn’t know there was a word for that for a really long time. I was just like, ‘I want corsets and I want people to be nice,’ and then I found out about steampunk when I was fifteen.

In high school, people would call me a Gothic librarian because there were only three labels: cheerleader, pothead or Goth. There were boxes, my friend, and you were in one of them.

“Aside from the lack of women’s rights, I think they had it right at the turn of the century,” says Tatiana “Skylark” Bishop, Anastasia’s sister.

A lot of steampunks are also performance groups — they create steampunk videos or appear in public together with a group storyline.

Steampunks develop their wardrobe in various ways. Some make their own clothes in the DIY ethos of punk, others put their outfits together by thrifting and shopping at online steampunk stores.

Enki and other steampunks certainly get quizzical looks for dressing the way they do. “I’ve had girls pull out their phones and take my picture while I’m riding my bike,” Enki says. “People will stop me and ask if my gun is real; I’ve even had someone buy a necklace I was wearing for $70.”

Enki has been creating and selling steampunk and Victorian-inspired jewelry and accessories on Etsy to other steampunks through his business, Leviathan Steamworks, since 2008: “I have to say I’ve been pretty successful with it, having traveled the county and having been featured in stores, magazines, websites, and all that fun jazz.”

Steampunk culture has rapidly increased in popularity over the past decade or so. You can Google “steampunk” followed by anything and something relevant will show up. Here are the results for Steampunk Banana, Steampunk Lawn Gnome, and Steampunk Wheelchair.

Steampunks have sort of an obsession for “steampunking” everything they can get their hands on, especially modern technology. “When the iPad came out, I said, I bet it’s a week before they come out with a steampunk version — and they did,” Enki says. “You may not have heard of steampunk,” he says, “But I guarantee you’ve seen it — you just didn’t know it was a thing.”

The Airship O’Reilly is planning a series of small community events, including a picnic and, perhaps eventually, a convention at the Urbana Landmark Hotel. Keep an eye out for them at the Urbana Farmer’s Market.

Meet the crew of the Airship O’Reilly at Hannah’s webpage.

[gallery steampunk]
All photos by Hannah Pitstick.

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