The basement of Maury Dickson's Woodstock home is his workshop. There, he turns antique gears, old eyeglasses and other bits of Victorian-era bric-a-brac into jewelry, clocks, lamps and other pieces of art that seem like they belong in a futuristic vision of the past.
He's been at it about three years now, taking up the art form known as steampunk when he was recuperating from a near-death experience with Guillain-Barre, a disease that temporarily paralyzed him, put him in a wheelchair for a year, and still leaves its painful mark on his body.
He sells his creations online and at the Art Gallery of Fells Point.
"His work is very popular with everyone," said Lynda Sebastianelli, who handles membership for the co-op gallery, which has about 40 artists.
Artists are voted in, and Sebastianelli was concerned that Dickson would not be approved because his work is so different from the fine art that is mostly sold at the gallery. But the other artists liked what they saw. He's been a member about three years, she said, and his items, particularly jewelry, lamps and clocks, sell well.
"His work is really good," she said. "It's eclectic, fun stuff."
Dickson, 71, is a longtime entrepreneur. He and his wife, Eileen, founded and ran the marketing company Dickson & Dickson Associates in Howard County, which closed about seven years ago, he said. For the past 15 years he has operated a craft studio in Lancaster, Pa., that is not open to the public, but creates objects including charger plates and picture frames for designers including Polo Ralph Lauren.
Five years ago, about two weeks after returning from Australia, Dickson suddenly experienced complete paralysis.
"The only thing I could do was blink," he said. He was in intensive care for weeks, and was hospitalized for 10 months. He never fully recovered, and still experiences weakness, particularly on his right side.
While he was recuperating and homebound, Dickson, who enjoys antiques and likes to build things, began casting around for an art form that he would be able to create with his new limitations. "What can I do to work through this?" he remembers asking himself.
He stumbled onto something called steampunk, an art genre that began about 25 years ago and has elements of Victorian science fiction, mixed with a touch of 1970s punk aesthetic. The idea is to create a vision of the future as it might have been imagined more than 100 years ago. It's the kind of stuff that H.G. Wells or Jules Verne might have imagined.
"The only thing they had was electricity and steam," he explained.
For example, he created a clock that uses a Tesla coil to give it tiny blue zags of electricity that create interest but don't actually power the clock.
"Remember, what we're dealing with here is science fiction," he said. "Steampunk is steeped in history, but it is not tied to particular truths."
Dickson calls himself an "Inventor of the unusual" on his business card. He figures he spends three to four hours a day in his basement studio, which is filled with "a bunch of crazy stuff that I like," much of it found online, from all over the world. One small box is filled with nothing but antique eyeglasses. His tools include a dentist's drill, miniature saws and soldering torches.
Dickson said he's "never made the same thing twice," so his prices naturally vary. Generally, jewelry at the gallery sells for between $20 and $80, said Sebastianelli.
For Dickson, steampunk "is more than a hobby," he said. It's proof that physical hurdles are no barrier to moving in a new direction. And it's a new income stream.
"Everything is a business, he said. "This has been growing and growing."
He expects business to grow even faster if the Japanese designer Octo Cheung uses the goggles he made at her request for a fashion show in London.
"I've started a whole new venue," he said. "And this is just going to build."
For more information, go Dickson's website: maurydickson.webs.com.