Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Steampunk Sculptor

A look at Dave Britton's strange and fascinating creations


On a rustic, rural plot of land on the outskirts of the Treasure Valley rests a blue, roomy home with funky portal windows. The house belongs to Dave Britton: sculptor, collector, hip-hop artist and businessman.

Britton grew up in Ontario, Ore., before moving to Los Angeles at age 18. An avid believer in aliens, he eventually started a latex mask-making company and sold his alien resin head kits at special effects conventions. Now, back in Ontario--with his wife Karri, three children, two birds and four dogs--he creates steampunk masks and bizarre taxidermy trophy heads.

Britton said he owes much of his inspiration to Star Wars and Mad Max.

"They made a futuristic world with grungy, dirty items. Mad Max showed me [how] to put together what looks good together," he said.

Britton's studio in an upstairs room in his home is full of unfinished projects--ray guns lie half assembled and hoses dangle from steampunk masks. Several fake guns are on display in the room, as are a miniature R2-D2 and a C3PO bust sporting a driver's cap. Recording equipment takes up one corner, where Britton and his hip-hop group Destiny Lab make albums about aliens and God.

Some of Britton's more eye-catching projects are fantastical taxidermy trophy heads that blur the laws of nature. For one piece, he took a mold of a taxidermy stingray and painted an intricate alien trophy head on the surface, complete with a scaly skin texture, glass eyes and false teeth. Other similar creatures include the fusion of a fox's head and a small shark's head, both frozen in mid-snarl.

"The thing about nature is that there's no copyright on it," Britton said of his trophy heads.

By definition, the steampunk genre--a moniker applied to art, fashion and literature that blend Victorian culture with elements of science fiction--requires exquisite detailing.

Britton has recently taken to setting aside his trophy heads in lieu of steampunk sculpting. While still relatively new to the genre, he excels in finding tiny, obscure pieces to complete popular steampunk items like ray guns, lamps and breathing apparatuses. Some items also serve a function beyond sculptural art.

"Some of the lamps actually turn on," he said. "I wore the breathing apparatus for Halloween last year."

Dissecting the elements of one of Britton's steampunk masks is a complex undertaking: pilot goggles, a slightly elongated snout and air filters on each side. A closer look reveals tiny clock gears decorating the straps, and the mouth is an old gas mask pieced together with various bolts and screws. Old leather cracks on the surface. In other masks, bug eyes replace the goggles or beaks take the place of a snout. Depending on the piece, hoses attach to the filters which connect to oxygen tanks that rest on the wearer's back, and small hose clamps secure ridged tubes.

Much of Britton's work is viewable by to the public. He owns a shop in Nampa called Rusty Retro Antiques and Oddities, which consists mostly of oddities. Customers can spend hours perusing the strange items he sells--everything from taxidermy alligators to electric rock polishers.

Britton fits in at his shop, wearing a black T-shirt with an alien's head crossed out under an unbuttoned shirt, a pair of glasses perched atop his nose. Several shelves scattered across the shop support old ceramic figurines, thermoses and telephones. A mirror with three moustaches painted on it rests on top of a red retro dining table. It's definitely not the usual antiques shop.

Kristen Randall runs the store, organizing the new items received daily and making friends with customers.

"Some of the weirdest stuff sells," said Randall.

Britton's work caught the attention of Boise's branch of the RAW: Natural Born Artists organization, which provides local artists a chance to display and spread the word about their work. After Britton submitted photos of his trophy heads and steampunk sculptures, Amy Johnson Myers, the Boise director of RAW, was intrigued.

"Steampunk is really popular right now. I also really liked his latex masks of aliens. I was sitting at my computer looking at his stuff and yelled for my kids to come look," Johnson Myers said.

Britton enjoyed participating in the RAW showcase and the opportunities that it created to interact with the public.

"It was like a party atmosphere; it made it easy to mingle," said Britton. "Interacting face-to-face helps you personalize your work a lot more."

But face-to-face interaction isn't Britton's top priority. He wants to make a video game that takes place in an alternate universe.

"Players can join and hunt creatures down. Whoever beats the game would win the actual trophy head of whatever they killed," he explained.

Britton said that 3D printing will make meeting his goal even more possible.

"Players could print out the trophy head once 3D printers are household items," he said.

In a world that is increasingly fascinated by steampunk, science fiction, fantasy and personalization, Britton's art has been taking off. It has been featured in publications including Make Magazine, Amazing Figure Modeler, Kitbuilders and Modeler's Resource. In addition to hawking his wares at Rusty Retro, Britton has a few ray guns, jewelry and lamps featured at the new Subspace store at 556 S. Vista Ave. on the Boise Bench.

As you exit Britton's studio, one sculpture in particular stands out: the Zandarian Tree Dog--a creature with a short snout, tough whiskers and a black nose mounted on the wall.

The addition of sabertooth tiger teeth, glass eyes, reptilian skin and a slightly longer neck distinguishes it as a fantastical creature straight out of Britton's strange and fascinating mind.