What it Takes to Make Big Art at Burning Man

Article by: emily ward|@_drawylime

Mon July 09, 2018 | 09:00 AM

Burning Man is hot, dry and wild. Oceans are salty, wet and also wild. Makes sense that marine life would inspire wildly creative art in the landlocked Black Rock Desert, right? Flaming octopuses, stationary octopuses, angler fish, a Narwhal , a Discofish , dolphins, a Space Whale , motorized sharks, pirate ships, and indeterminate creatures of vaguely marine origins are routine. But it’s not just the art that lines up. The experience does too. For starters, we pack our cars like we're boarding cargo ships headed for the Bermuda Triangle for six months. We’re anxious to see our safe, structured lives give way to Black Rock City's exciting instability. Burning Man has an excellent knack for pulling your anchors up, and like the ocean, it bears treacherous waters if you don’t play your cards right. 

It’s these unlikely similarities between the two that led Max and Jonny Poynton to create 2016's  The Black Rock Lighthouse Service , a cluster of highly detailed wooden lighthouses in deep playa. A high-profile project and one of the biggest on playa in 2016, the Lighthouses were a smashing success. It took our international crew a lot of labor, love and lumber (and ca$h) to get these girls ready for the big show. Even now, more than a week after the massive inferno, we’re still riding high from the experience. If you’re wanting a crack at the big art experience, here’s what you should keep in mind.

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From L to R: Coco, Brigid, Elli, Durga [in back], Artemis [not pictured] Photo by: Andrew Grinberg

Have a Plan

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L to R: Elli, Brigid, Coco lighthouse exteriors. Photo by: Jesse Rather Photography

That Burning Man rule book, the one insisting blinky things and lasers belong everywhere, can be your Bible. Or you can tear it up. Do what you want. Build that fire-breathing dragon on wheels holding a spatula if you wish – but there's a reason people pay a lot of lip service to "big ideas." Big ideas are simple. People identify with what you're saying, and how you're saying it. The Black Rock Lighthouses invited participants a guiding hand as they visited various levels of their subconscious, and that uniquely crafted experience gave Burning Man cause to grant Honorarium art status to the project. Max and Jonny's concept envisioned bringing a cluster of lighthouses, "structures typically associated with the coastline, [to] the Black Rock desert with the same functionality purposes." 

The lighthouses sprang off the ground in 2015 with the support of Tom Lee, and more than 60 volunteers out of American Steel Studios in Oakland, California brought it to the finish line with months of dedicated, hard work. I first met this crew in 2012, when Max Poynton and Andrew Grinberg built The Bottlecap Gazebo. We've remained friends through Bay area art circles. Then, six months ago, I heard that Max and Jonny were building a huge cluster of lighthouses. I jumped at the chance to help, and here we are. 

A creative and good-humored approach to the process is essential. In a Burner world that enjoys an astonishing range of mind-blowing playa tech, The Black Rock Lighthouse Service brought it back to basics. Our playa tech was exquisitely detailed wood (much of it reclaimed), fabric, glass, plaster, paint, and good old-fashioned fire poofers. Hands took the place of complicated machinery, and regular tools made it easy for any eager volunteer to jump in and work a staple gun or helm a chop saw. Every shingle of that gargantuan project was crafted with love and attention. And a lot of Racer 5.

Your Crew Must Be the Finest

And by "finest," we don't mean they need to all be professionals. Enthusiasm and a willingness to learn matter just as much. Moral support from friends, family community, loved ones, coworkers, baristas, professionals, fluffers...everyone will keep you going. We didn't even have all the crew helping out from the same zip code. Folks from Switzerland and South Africa were essential from the moment they met our crew at AfrikaBurn in April, as they rolled in for the Lighthouses' three-week long playa build all the way through to the Burn night. The interior of lighthouse, "Durga," was built by a Japanese glass art crew and no one saw it fully completed until the Monday we opened. Art of this scale takes a village, and people came out of the woodwork (... had to...) to help and revel in the creation. Oh, and on the topic of awesome crews, we are indebted to the people who donated money to make this dream project a reality. We were financially strapped in the weeks leading up to our departure (uh, we're still $28,000 in the hole if you have any spare change...), and the community turned out and raised $20,000 in less than two weeks. It was astounding to watch. Especially astounding was the bevy of donations we got from a series of "Glamberts." An investigation led us to one of our lead artist's mothers, an Adam Lambert lover who put the call for help out to his fan page. Outstanding.

I had a great f-ing time working with this motley crew. Even when there wasn't immediate work to do, messing around with these folks (a majority of whom have probably worked on some of your favorite Burning Man art pieces) was just as productive. We went from acquaintances to friends. You'll have a hard time finding a more highly-skilled group of carpenters, welders, metalworkers, drafters, glass artists, project managers, textile designers, sculptors, machinery operators, fabricators, pyrotechnic geniuses, accomplished generalists, staple gun wielders and overall grade-A hooligans who know their way around a 12-pack of Racer 5 while wielding power tools.

Stock Up On Provisions

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An invincible inferno survivor. Photo by: Emily Ward

Toiling away under the brutal sun is easier when you've got a few creature comforts. Sundries should include food, booze, fresh watermelon and a colorful range of alertness aids. Make sure you have enough socks and cigarettes. Pick a worthy sea shanty – Metallica or Michael Jackson will get the job done. Fluffers are essential out there, coming with fresh food, more than enough booze, a spritz of lavender water to the face, and a positive attitude. Bonus points if you can find a fluffer willing to work the crowd, to gather treats from thirsty Burners and their faux fur-lined pockets as they watch you build late into the night. Popsicles will appear out of nowhere, and so will ice cream. You will drink way too much Racer 5. When that’s gone, you’ll drink way too much shitty beer. Make sure you drink enough water, because you will not drink enough water. No, beer doesn't count as water.  Another essential provision? Swag. Can't forget that. We had crew sweatshirts, beer koozies, lighters, lanyards and bottle openers at the ready to rep our pride. 

Take the Praise

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A message on Brigid's observatory deck. Photo by: Emily Ward

Modesty is a virtue, but so is kindness. Do yourself a solid kindness by congratulating yourself. Fuck modesty! Be stoked! Because you know what? It feels really good to be part of the team of a destination piece. Burning Man is a crowded art landscape, and you don't get a trophy just for showing up. Be proud of yourself. Stick that chest out. Brag, and boast about your team members. There is a lot of incredible art at Burning Man, and to hear people go out of their way to mention a team’s attention to love and detail...it feels special, like an invisible high five all week.

Check Yourself

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"Durga" lighthouse interior. By Toshiaki Uchikoshi & the Mirrorbowler crew. Photo by: Roesing Ape

Emotions will run high. They will run low. Take care of yourself. You are not the only one who’s tired. You are not the only one who’s stayed up four nights in a row to do whatever needs to get done. Luckily, there weren't any massive injuries on our piece, but cuts, burns, sunburns, scratches and splinters were standard.  You will laugh. You will cry. Salty tears. You will laugh at the thing you’re crying about. You and your comrades will overheat and get pissed. (One of our lead artists chewed out a pair of gentlemen who crossed the tape to check out the Lighthouses before they were safely done. The pair turned out to be friendly, and they chatted at length. It took her a full day to realize that one of them was Skrillex.) 

In the weeks leading up to the Burn, I was tearing my hair out from frustration and anxiety.  I fell off things I shouldn’t have been standing on in the first place. A neon skull in a top hat played the Willy Wonka soundtrack on the night we opened, and made me cry. But I always try to remember that Burning Man is a privilege. We're lucky to be where we are, making art just to make art. You'll need that reality check when things don't go your way – which they won't. Metal lead Cliff Florio’s favorite mishap occurred with the main light in Brigid, the 62-foot-tall lighthouse, when “we found that it would [spontaneously] burn [wood] in a matter of seconds. So I had to do all that fireproofing in the main lantern room to keep it from burning itself down…which I didn’t even want to do because lighthouses used to burn themselves down all the time.” On that note: don't be a quitter.  If you are, fine. Just don't take others down with you. Our leaders constantly reminded us that we were killing it, and motivated us to get this thing off the ground and out the door.

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A peek into Artemis' windows. Interiors designed by Gretchen Stamp. Photo by: Galen Oakes

Many ask, "How can you burn art you spent a quarter of a million dollars on?" How? The outpouring of love, awe and support the crew received from friends and strangers alike made it all worth the effort. Burners left mementos, poems, ashes of loved ones, and messages of love scattered through our wooden walls. All week long, people came up just to share thanks. Working on a crew is a special thing, and receiving a community's gratitude as a group strengthens those bonds. Co-creator and lead artist Max Poynton says, "I'm in awe and floored at the amount of energy, skill, creativity, humor, support and love that was thrown into this project. And what really blows my mind was how well that reverberated and shone through the piece. The number one piece of feedback that I got back from people was that they felt the love and intention put into it."

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The Black Rock Lighthouse burn on Saturday night. Photo by: Jesse Rather Photography

I’ve been guilty, of course, of returning from Burning Man and talking about what a life altering experience it is. How it’ll change your life, exceed all your expectations, no, you don’t HAVE to go to the Orgy dome (but you can). Working on big art is another colossal shift in perspective. Once you're on a project from the inside, you'll walk away with a massive appreciation of what truly big art takes. I encourage everyone to seek out the opportunity to get involved, pre-, post-, or on-playa. Your Burns will take on a new life.

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Your 2016 Black Rock Lighthouse Crew

Co-Creators, Lead Artists: Max Poynton, Jonny Poynton. Project Managers: Tom Lee, Brook Buswell, Courtney King, Zalia Aliriza, Emily Ward "Brigid" Interior Designers: Raven "Corviid" Ebner , Megan "Lushious" Lush.  "Elli" Interior Designer: Gabriella Levandowski. "Artemis" Interior Designer: Gretchen Stamp.  "Koko" Interior Designer: Rebecca Anders. "Durga" Interior Designer: Toshiaki Uchikoshi, Keith Trader & the Mirrorbowler Crew. Structural Engineers: Erik Kneer, Erik McGregor, Mary Kretschmar. Architect: Elizabeth Marley. Metal Lead: Clifford Florio. Metal Crew: Paul Franke, June Dziedzic, Thwen Chaloemtiarana. Black Ops: Paul Belger. Electrical Leads: Gerald Spencer, Pasha Reshetikhin Carpentry Lead: Dave Keane. Fire/Burn Leads: Don Cain, Aaron Scott & the Department of Spontaneous Combustion. Bridges: Mike Henderson, James Lanham.

Our entire talented crew: Aaron Smith, Aileen Louie, Alexander Neukam, Alice Windsor, Amy Berry, Andrew Grinberg, Annabelle Lombard, Ari Heavner, Arvin Hsu, Ash Lauth, Ashley Stewart, Ben Burningham, Beth Cowan, Betsy / Elizabeth White Dalkert, Bob O'Brien, Bryan Keane, Carla Riggi, Carole L'Abbe, Carrie Henderson, Chan Fenton Liebman, Chris Brignola, Chris Jones, Claire Lichnerowicz, Dana De Lara, Dany Felten, Dave Brockbank, David Newsom, Desiree De Lara, Douglas Camplejohn, Elizabeth Rose Waskey De Nola, Emma Locke Emmi Buck, Eric Vince, Erik Kneer, Erik McGregor, Finola Fitzclarence, Gabriel Dice, Gerald Spencer, Greg Blaug Bernie, Hannah Sample, Harold Aichele, Harry Nedley, Heather Mezey, Homer Snyder, Jason Anderholm (Horse), Jason D. Hoge, Jason Privett, Jeremy Crandell, Joe Eddie, John Hunter, John Lovell, John T Howell IV, Jun Matsumoto, Kenji Aragaki, Kentaro Ito, Kristen Krauel, Laird Archer, Larissa Linder, Legna M. Alvira, Leo Heffler, Leo Kornfield, Lizzie Rojas, Lori-Ann DeVoe, Louise Baranowski, Maggie Philipsborn, Mahogany Luciana Moton-Spruill, Margaret DeCuir, Marissa drake-lee, Mark Deen, Michael Clancy, Michael Clarke, Michael Stevenson, Migle Kanapelkaite, Morteza Ansari, Nicholas Faerber, Nick Cary, Noah Dice, Olivier L'Abbe, Pamela Ward, Paul Belger, Paul Franke, Piper Geffen, Rachel McGannon, Robert Bostrom, Robert Fyfe, Roesing Ape, Ryan James Parker, Samson Yeung, Sarah Keane, Sarah M. Carter (Vikestress), Scooz Major/Scott Moore, Sinjin Knapp, Stanley Hampton, Stefan Dalkert, Stephanie Shipman, Stephen Wallace Johnson, Sterling L. Stubblefield, Sven Thomas, Tim Holman, Tom Sepe, Tom Verkozen, Toshiaru Horiuchi, Weston Call, Yaella/Karen Frankel, Yves Langston Barthaud, Zac Allan Lenox, Zalia Aliriza

This article was originally published in September 2016.