When Brian de Geest first expressed an interest in buying the historic Meek’s Grain Elevator building in Oamaru, his lawyer told him he needed it like he “needed a second asshole”.
“I loved the old building – and I’d always wanted to own an old building,” Mr de Geest said.
So when he saw it still on the market two years later, he thought “f .. you Bill, I’m buying it”.
Mr De Geest had no plans for the former grainstore – and for a long time he did nothing with it.
“I just wanted to own an old building – it was nothing more clever than that.”
Then, in 2009, he met sculptor Don Paterson at the Crucible Gallery.
Mr Paterson was an artist in residence there, and was interested in playing basketball in North Otago.
He had been told Mr de Geest was the man he needed to talk to.
“Basketball brought us together,” Mr de Geest said.
“I looked at his stuff and went, ‘this is pretty cool s ..’.”
Around the same time, Sally Hope had introduced Mr de Geest to Agent Darling (aka Iain Clark), who was organising the first Steampunk exhibition at Forrester Gallery.
“Agent Darling showed me his steampunk cup and ring and talked about what steampunk was all about – and I really liked it,” he said.
“I loved the aesthetic and the breadth of it.
“I like different, that’s my thing – I liked [steampunk] and I liked him.”
He wanted to support the exhibition and, with just three weeks until it opened, asked Mr Paterson to help create something for it.
“I’d purchased the old Otematata School and in the playground was an old tractor.
“I said to Don ‘let’s steampunk my Otematata School tractor’.”
The steampunk tractor and the late Chris Meder’s giant steampunk motorbike formed a display outside the Forrester Gallery for the 2009 Steampunk exhibition.
Both attracted a lot of attention and contributed to the huge success of the inaugural event.
For the next exhibition in 2010, Mr de Geest and Mr Paterson wanted to step things up, deciding to steampunk the old diesel train that was once the carriage cafe at Glenavy.
“Alan McLay rang me one day and said ‘there’s a train out at Glenavy – it’s got to stay in Oamaru, it can’t go anywhere’,” he said.
“So I went and bought the train and the land. Picked up the train and carriage, brought it back to the yard and immediately sold the land.
“So when the next exhibition was coming, I said to Don ‘right, it’s got to be bigger and better – it’s going to be the train we’re going to steampunk’.”
Mr Paterson’s concept was the train from Hell “drilling out of the bowels of the earth” and, like the tractor, it was put on display in Oamaru’s main street, on the grass outside the Forrester Gallery.
Every night, Mr de Geest, Mr Paterson and Jac Grenfell would control the train’s smoke and noise by remote control.
“We’d come down just on dark and fire it up – and we used to get hundreds of people turning up.
“We did that for six, seven, eight months – every night.”
For Mr de Geest, steampunk added another layer to Oamaru, and he found it much more interesting and fun than Victorian heritage.
“That’s what it’s all about, adding another layer to Oamaru and a reason for people to come.”
But some people questioned his intentions and suggested he was trying to “own” steampunk in Oamaru.
In response, de Geest erected a “Steampunk HQ” sign on the Elevator building as “a total piss take”.
Ten years later, “it’s still a total piss take,” he said.
He employed Mr Paterson and Mr Grenfell as artists in residence at Steampunk HQ and was gifted a compressor from the old Northern Hotel.
The old compressor was the first piece that ever went into Steampunk HQ and formed the centrepiece of the museum.
“That was the start – we spent two years creating it, it was a big investment,” he said.
It was a large space, but they slowly started filling it up, meeting every morning to discuss ideas.
“All it was was lots of caffeine and crazy ideas,” he said.
“Don’s favourite comment was ‘what’s next?’.
“It became our favourite catch cry and it’s still that today.”
They opened the doors to the public in time for the 2011 Oamaru Victorian Heritage Celebrations, not knowing what was going to happen.
From having to stand outside and explain what steampunk was to get people in the door and celebrating the days that takings covered staff wages, times have certainly changed.
Now, people come to Oamaru to visit Steampunk HQ.
“I understand some people don’t get it, but there are thousands upon thousands coming here to see steampunk first,” he said.
“People ask ‘what makes Oamaru different?’ – it is Steampunk.
“We’ve had people say ‘hey will you bring this to San Francisco?’
“There are people who want us to take it on tour, or uplift it.”
The installation of The Portal light room in 2014 gave the gallery a real boost – but its success mostly came down to persistence and timing, he said.
Steampunk HQ went in a very different direction to the Victorian League of Imagineers, but there was a place for both in Oamaru, he said.
“What they do is fantastic. I love it.
“I don’t think they get enough support for what they do and the potential that no-one seems to recognise.”
Ten years since being introduced to steampunk, Mr de Geest continues to come up with new ideas for Steampunk HQ.
“Ten years – it’s been a good 10 years, hasn’t it?
“We’d love to a whole lot more, but there’s a whole lot of rules and regulations that preclude that.
“[But] we’re working on something that can’t be talked about and we’re always adding layers and filling gaps.”
At a glance – Steampunk HQ
Steampunk HQ is an art collaboration which portrays an industrial version of Steampunk, “with a giant sense of humour and larger than life visions of an off-the-wall Steampunk universe”. A full-scale train engine that spits fire and billows smoke greets visitors at the front of the building, and a blimp hovering over the entrance to the yard demands attention. The gallery inside is filled with an assortment of retro-futuristic sci-fi art, movies, sculpture, light and sound experiences. The yard is evolving all the time – scattered with “steampunked” contraptions and figures.
Meek’s Grain Elevator building
★ Idea conceived by William Aitken to deal with surplus wheat in North Otago and sparked the interest of brothers James and Thomas Meek.
★ Designed by architects Forrester and Lemon, who contributed greatly to Oamaru’s 19th-Century character
★ The first elevator building in the southern hemisphere and largest commercial building undertaken by the design partnership of Forrester and Lemon.
★ Severly damaged in 1920 fire.
★ Remodelled and continued to be used as a grain store until the mid-1950s.
★ Sold to G.T. Gillies Ltd. Used as a storage facility for the company.