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West Oakland is home to many art studios, but nothing else as big or diverse as this. Not so long ago, the American Steel building was slated for demolition in order to build condos. But Das Mann and Cusolito hope to create an environment so appealing that no one would dare tear it down. And where many such studios live under the constant threat of being closed down because they don't comply with city building or fire codes, Das Mann and Cusolito have worked hard to develop a relationship with the City of Oakland.
It's hard to imagine that a party in the desert could help change the face of West Oakland. But that's exactly what's happening. If the Big Art Studios at American Steel succeeds, it could redefine an entire neighborhood.
Das Mann has a reputation for taking on big projects and making them work. It seems to be part of his hardwiring.
"I pulled my first all-nighter when I was ten," he said, fondly remembering the working bubblegum machine he built out of Legos. It took him 24 hours, but he didn't quit until family members were pumping pennies into his multicolored plastic machine.
Dan's original surname was Lowry, which he replaced with Das Mann at age seventeen. At twenty, he helped his mother and brother start a pizza business called Lowry Food Company. At its height, he said, they were making 50,000 pizzas a day for Walmart, Albertsons, and other big grocery stories. "It was a very exciting and interesting experience," he said, "but ultimately not for me."
At 21, Dan escaped his hometown of Dallas to attend a landscape architecture program at Rutgers University on Long Island. But he didn't get along with his professors all that well. Part of the problem was that he was better at going to the bar than to class. But he also resisted the rules of conventional landscape architecture. "I was always turning my pieces into these huge sculptures," he said. "They wanted things to be a little more structured and I was building theme parks with rivers through them instead of beautiful winding infinity pools."
By the time he graduated, the family business was booming and his mother and brother invited him to return to Dallas to become a partner in Lowry Food Company. He accepted, but only stayed for two years. That's when he moved to the Bay Area for a fresh start.
"I immediately found Burning Man and started making art out here," he said. "It was kind of like my art school."
This year at Burning Man, he turned forty on the night of the burn. Hovering above, Ecstasy's hands clenched against her metal chest, periodically bursting into flames. People blew in and out of his camp like sand, an endless storm of acquaintances swirling amongst his closest friends as everyone danced to the music and fire effects blasted from above and below. A photo booth built onto the back of a Cushman meter-maid vehicle, known as the Photo Boof, projected strange and familiar faces across the sand in front of the camp. One night turned into the next. The birthday party seemed to go on for days. "I'm kind of amazed at what I've accomplished," Das Mann confessed.
But less than a week later, it was back to work at American Steel. Trucks of dusty gear pulled into a large storage bay and people waited around to recoup their deposits by cleaning metal poles and dusty kitchen equipment. Ecstasy lay supine next to the Photo Boof on a huge truck trailer. Das Mann came zipping around the corner on a forklift. Immediately, a team of people swarmed around him helping to keep the Photo Boof balanced as he used the forklift to ease it onto the ground.
Such scenes are typical at American Steel. Whatever Das Mann's working on, there seems to be a team of loyal volunteers on hand to help. Dale Holden is one of them. He hooked up with American Steel through a friend. "I showed up one day and helped out with unloading a truck and realized what the place was about and decided to stay because it was freaking amazing," he said.
Holden has been involved with American Steel for more than three months now, and on that particular day he was in charge of the cleanup effort. Toward the evening, he calmly started rounding up volunteers to help him with a side project. A city building inspector had discovered people affiliated with American Steel squatting in a storage lot across the street. It was Holden's job to clean out the lot within 24 hours.
But eventually the cleanup effort turned into a late-night party. Everything seemed extremely relaxed and it was questionable whether the lot would be ready for the inspector in the morning. Then Das Mann emerged out of the shadows, and the partying turned to work. By the next morning there was a lock on the gate and the place was cleaned out.
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