Das Mann of Steel 

How a metalworker from Burning Man became the maestro of the huge American Steel artist complex.

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"The inspiration with all this cross-pollination is so rich," she said. "I love coming to work."

Metalwork is still the primary business at American Steel. But recently Das Mann and Cusolito renovated a warehouse for other types of artists. For 70 cents a square foot per month, painters and sculptors can now rent partitioned cubicles. But like everything at American Steel, this space is adjacent to industrial activity. At least one painter has complained that her canvases get dirty from dust and various kinds of debris in the air. Das Mann promises that a cleanup is in the works.

Painter Daniel White notes the dust, but doesn't find it a problem. "I figure Leonardo put up with it," White said. "He didn't have air conditioning or anything. If Michelangelo, Leonardo, all those guys dealt with the dust, I can deal with the dust." Some people may want a pristine or quiet workspace, but White said he likes the close proximity of so many different projects happening at once.

"I get a lot of inspiration," he said. "I get a lot of feedback. People come by and look at the work. Then I can also look at other people's work. It really helps fuel what I do." For instance, White was working on an elaborate chair, featuring nails and crosses, that dealt with religious themes. And being at American Steel has inspired him to envision the project completely differently. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, I can make that big.' I'm thinking, 'Hey, why not push it and do a whole dining-room set?' Then yesterday I was thinking, 'Why not just do a whole room?'"

Other tenants have similarly big plans, although their art is perhaps less obvious. Ernest Lawson works for the West Oakland Greening Project, a nonprofit that builds wooden benches and planters and installs them around the city. Lawson might not seem like an artist, especially next to a bunch of painters and sculptors. But as Cusolito and Das Mann see it, they're all essentially trying to beautify their environments. Lawson calls American Steel a "big little community" where there's a lot going on but everyone's willing to help at a moment's notice.

"Basically, if you need to borrow a truck, someone will let you borrow it," he said. "Anything you need to do. It's real close-knit in here." Lawson is trading services with someone he calls "the worm lady." He's making her a box for her worms and, in return, she's going to make the West Oakland Greening Project a web page.

Das Mann recently returned from a trip to Los Angeles. It was the middle of the week around noon and Ecstasy and another giant metal figure were again strapped to a truck trailer. The driver pulled around to the side of the building, unhitched his cargo, and drove away. Das Mann and a small crew sat on the trailer, preparing to move the 14,000-pound Ecstasy with cranes. Das Mann had good news.

"We talked with Pascal, who runs E.D.C. and all these big raves, and he's basically hired us to build the second biggest stage at E.D.C."

E.D.C., or Electric Daisy Carnival, is a 100,000-person electronic-music festival held in the spring at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Pasquale Rotella produces that and several other events. Das Mann had let Rotella rent Ecstasy and two other figures with full fire effects for an event called "Nocturnal" the previous weekend. That's when Das Mann pitched him the idea of building a "custom stage." Apparently, Rotella liked it.

"There's a limited amount of money to do installations like we do," Das Mann said. "Burning Man probably has the biggest grants. But that's limited, too. The maximum they give is like $60,000 or $70,000. That doesn't take you that far. So I was thinking, 'What if we turn these stages that have big budgets into huge sculptures?' So a stage isn't just a stage for a DJ anymore, it's a major art installation in its entirety."

If the Electric Daisy Carnival stage goes well, Das Mann hopes to contract with Rotella to create approximately fifty stages a year. "That would be an entire company unto itself that would run out of American Steel. It would be two bays of stage construction, art making year-round."

For Das Mann, the idea is damn near perfect. The budget for a stage can be anywhere from $80,000 to $300,000, which would provide work not only for him, but also for many other people at American Steel. Das Mann said he would love to give Dias the work of building the stage's frame. "Every kind of artist — the painters, the glassblowers, the ceramicists, everyone — can have pieces of this thing. ... It just goes on and on."

It's hard to pin down just where Das Mann's insatiable desire to create ever-larger projects comes from. It seems partly inborn and partly the result of Burning Man culture. But there's something else, too. He's an artist, but he's also a promoter and a people person. A gathering is a work of art for Das Mann. Organizing a camp, a party, an art installation, a giant artist workspace, a DJ–stage-turned-sculpture — each is a work of art for him.

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