A visual tour of Oakland's industrial arts corridor.

Silicon Valley may be #1 for mobile apps and big data, but across the bay, Oakland has become a mecca for the maker movement and big art. Building on the city’s rich legacy of shipbuilding and industrial infrastructure, as well as its affordable real estate, Oakland has attracted a community at the vanguard arts and science.  

“Oakland has become the home of the Industrial Arts movement,” says Justin Quimby, cofounder of BlueSprout, a hardware accelerator and manufacturing space in West Oakland. “It’s the maker movement applied to a larger scale.”

By that, he means three-story sculptures, interactive installations and commercial works that would have a hard time being built anywhere else. That makes Oakland—specifically the West Oakland corridor that runs along the Mandela Parkway—uniquely suited for large-scale projects like those favored by attendees of the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. By some estimates, 70 percent of the art cars, towering effigies and robots that roam the playa each year are made in Oakland. These have included, notably, a large wooden Trojan horse, a pair of Mad Max-like metallic serpent cars (photo below) and a Steampunk treehouse.  

Twin Serpents on the playa. Photo: Jon Sarriugarte

Twin Serpents on the playa. Photo: Jon Sarriugarte

American Steel Studios

Founded in 2006 by Karen Cusolito, a large-scale industrial artist who works primarily with steel, American Steel Studios stretches across six acres. It’s cavernous warehouses once teemed with workers repairing ships from the Port of Oakland. Today, a new community of creative types is making use of the bridge cranes and drive-through truck access for large-scale projects, from massive metallic sculptures like Cusolito’s to furniture to fantastical Burning Man creations.   

Girls learn how to weld at The Crucible (photo credit: Heather Hryciw)

Girls learn how to weld at The Crucible (photo credit: Heather Hryciw)

The Crucible 

The Crucible is a non-profit educational facility that fosters a collaboration of Arts, Industry and Community. Started in nearby Berkeley in 1999 by sculptor Michael Sturtz, it’s been in its present 56,000 square foot space in West Oakland since 2003. Some 5,000 youth and adults take classes in everything from blacksmithing to light technology to fire arts each year. In July, the studio hosted PlayaBound, an open house showcasing in-progress Burning Man projects, such as Between Dimensions, two 20 by 30-footscreens that use live video feedback and mapping to generate fractals.

NIMBY's soaring space accommodates large scale projects (photo: Amy Cortese)

NIMBY's soaring space accommodates large scale projects (photo: Amy Cortese)


NIMBY bills itself as the largest do-it-yourself industrial art space in the Bay Area, with over 40 different art groups and craftsmen in the shop. To a visitor, it looks like a sprawling funhouse for people who like to play with blow torches and chain saws— especially in the months ahead of Burning Man, where some of the festival’s most iconic works are birthed.

A yard with works in progress at NIMBY. (photo: Amy Cortese)

A yard with works in progress at NIMBY. (photo: Amy Cortese)

Among this year’s Burning Man-bound projects being built at NIMBY are the Alien Siege Machine, a 45-foot sci-fi installation that will ‘awaken’ on the playa, and The Kraken, a 24-foot sea creature made of scrap wood and equipped with sensors and electronics, both by a group called East Bay Burners.  There’s also Dr. Brainlove, a giant steel light-up brain made by a group of scientists and engineers.

In comparison, the bean bag chairs, fooseball tables and putting greens of Silicon Valley campuses look downright tame.


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About Amy Cortese @locavesting

Amy Cortese is an award-winning journalist and the author of Locavesting (Wiley, 2011)