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A con pro: ND designer creates costumes, accessories for comic-con enthusiasts

Luke Russell displays one of his cosplay creations, a "Cubone" skull while a 3-D printer operates in the background at his Grand Forks apartment. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 3
A Renaissance fair costume for a client is nearly completed at Luke Russell's studio. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 3
Luke Russell used his 3-D printer to create "World of Warcraft" hoard logos. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service3 / 3

GRAND FORKS—Like any artist's studio, the bedroom in Luke Russell's apartment is cluttered with the raw materials, instruments and equipment he uses to create his art.

Along one wall are pieces of leather, bolts of fake fur, fabric, costume accessories, a sewing machine and an assortment of tools—not to mention a host of lidded bins that keep a multitude of items under control.

Pointing to a mass of curly, dark brown fake fur, Russell said, "I use this for wolf and cat costumes, and for the legs of a satyr—the half man, half goat (figure from Greek mythology).

"I make cat ears and tails out of the leather."

In the opposite corner of the room, a 3-D printer and computer components occupy most of a expansive tabletop where, with a low repetitive hum, the printer is slowly producing a plastic "facehugger" as seen in the movie, "Alien."

"The bed (of the printer) has to be 60 degrees Celsius," he said.

The biodegradable filament, called PLA, is heated too as it threads from a spool atop the machine and emerges underneath, where a tiny fan cools the melted plastic. The successive horizontal layers exuded from the machine will eventually form the solid three-dimensional object.

The unit will run nonstop, he said. Producing the facehugger "will take about 45 hours."

Costumed characters

For the past 10 years, Russell, 37, has been using his artistic talents and ingenuity to create elaborate costumes and accessories that transform avid fans into their favorite characters from comic books, movies, TV and film.

"Some people do this professionally," traveling to comic conventions around the country to compete for prize money in costume competitions, he said.

Most of his clients attend conventions where the expression of pop culture and popular characters in the media are on full display.

Interest in such conventions "is already big here, but it's becoming more mainstream," he said.

For the past two years or so, he's been honing his skills using a 3-D printer to make accessories or elements of costumes.

"I've been putting it out there that I can do more detailed stuff," he said.

Potential clients have found him "by word-of-mouth, Facebook or con groups," he said.

The 3-D printer is critical to the growth of his business, Neko-Steamworks, which started as a hobby and has become his primary source of income.

"I just started doing this in the last two years," Russell said. "And now it's close to 40 percent of my business.

"A lot of people make their own costumes," he said. But if they want "something nice," more authentic or more detailed, they turn to Russell or someone who does similar work.

"3-D printing has getting more popular in the cos-play community," he said. "Cos-play" is short for "costume play," taking on a character's appearance and personality at conventions.

"People want these little blasters and full-size helmets," he said. "I do commission work on just about anything."

That is evidenced by the cubone skull, from Pokemon, which he fashioned from coat hangers, plastic bags, masking tape and plaster wraps.

"It's not fully finished," he said. "I'm going to weather it with coffee grounds to look like it's been out in the desert a long time."

Early interest in art

"I've been doing this professionally since 2008, but I've been doing this, really, all my life," Russell said.

Growing up in northern California, he worked at Renaissance-themed events, absorbing all he could from older, retired craftspeople who taught skills such as prop-building, set design and costuming.

"As long as you weren't a know-it-all and you were willing to listen, they were very interested in teaching," he said.

"I learned blacksmithing, leather-working, and chainmail techniques."

In the past decade, Russell has seen his business grow as more people are attracted to the fantasy and fun that comic conventions offer—and they want to dress the part, whether it's Elsa from the hit movie, "Frozen," or the diesel punk style of "Mad Max."

There's no shortage of imagination.

"People come up with off-the-wall costumes," he said. "They attend conventions as just about anyone you can think of."

Creating costumes and accessories for this market "is kind of fun" and "definitely interesting."

But what is most satisfying is seeing people wear and display his costumes at a convention.

"If you're cool with putting on a costume and showing yourself off, those are the people who are actually passionate about it," he said. "They're the ones I really love."

If you go:

'ForXcon' set for Saturday at Eagles Club

What: A celebration of comics and popular culture

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: East Grand Forks (Minn.) Eagles Club, 227 10th St. N.W.

Admission: $5 for 13 years and older; free for 12 years and younger; $1 off for student ID

Presented by: ValleyCon and Red River Science Fiction and Fantasy

For more information, visit: " target="_blank">www.valleycon.com/forxcon.html

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