Burning temples and flaming rhinos

Tucked away along the Petaluma River, local artist Kevin Clark has been busy raising a 9-foot-tall, fire-breathing rhinoceros.

It may sound like a pipe dream, but transforming an old 1974 Chevy pick-up into the fantastical creature on wheels has been Clark’s labor of love over the last six weeks. Within the walls of his Copeland Street workshop, Clark’s team of volunteer engineers, mechanics and welders has been working tirelessly to bring the “Rhino Redemption” car to life, just in time for Burning Man.

Clark is one of several Petaluma artists participating in Burning Man this year — an annual celebration of art, community and self-expression centered in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Artists create and display grandiose sculptures and structures during the week-long event, often with the sole purpose of being burned down — hence the large wooden effigy for which the event is named.

But Clark has no such plans to torch his Rhino Redemption car, which will be outfitted with LED lights, a “beast of a sound system,” walls that open like the wings of a DeLorean, and a dance floor built for 20 in its belly. Rather than being set aflame itself, the rhino will shoot fireballs into the sky from the tip of its horn.

The idea for the robotic rhino came to Clark last year, when a friend showed him a whimsical picture of a rhinoceros towing a carriage in caravan fashion. Clark was inspired by the image, and set to work on building a steam punk-style carriage, with 6-foot-tall steel wheels and a roof strong enough to support a party of 25.

Today, the covered gypsy carriage is still a work in progress, and eventually, the finished Rhino Redemption car will tow the coach, just like the photo. But for now, Clark will take the pieces separately to Burning Man. Over the last month, his focus has been on completing the rhino car, which has involved extensive remodeling of the Chevy’s cab and hood and modifications to the engine.

The biggest challenge for Clark has been funding, which he said relies heavy on the Kickstarter campaign created by one of his team members. Clark is hoping is to raise $5,000 with Kickstarter by Aug. 11, so that he can personally match that amount dollar for dollar for a total budget of $10,000. With 32 backers who have pledged a total of $3,626 so far, he’s closing in on his goal.

When it comes to his Burning Man project, Clark said his inspiration stems from the artistic community and culture that culminates at the celebration each year.

“When you go and you see all of those amazing projects, it’s hard as a builder to not be inspired,” Clark said. “People just really bring it out there. It’s amazing.”

Before embarking on “Rhino Redemption,” Clark first experienced Burning Man in 2001 alongside Petaluma artist David Best and his devoted team of temple builders. So it’s fitting that Best and his crew have been occupying an industrial lot just down the road from Clark’s workshop this summer. In fact, just by crossing the river onto Water Street, one can find another Burning Man project in the works — a team of British artists constructing giant teapots that “burners” can ride in during the festival.

Best is famous for his towering temporary temples, and his fleet of volunteers have been working endlessly to design and construct intricate pieces of what will be known this year as the “Temple of Grace.” On Friday, they will embark on their journey to the Black Rock Desert, where the structure will be reassembled in the coming weeks.

Best said his first temple, built about 14 years ago, was in honor of a young Petaluma man who was killed in a motorcycle accident. Since then, he’s maintained a tradition to build a temple each year dedicated to loss. Privately, Best said, the crew dedicates each temple to suicide.

“The Burning Man community embraces a lot of things that the outside world doesn’t,” Best said. “We celebrate those persons’ lives. Thousands of people have gone and brought some of the more painful things in their life to the temple, and they came to grips with it.”

This description could fit any one of Best’s loyal volunteers. They range from those who have lost loved ones, to creative types looking to make a difference in the lives of others. A volunteer from Marin, Corinne, best described her experience building the temple with a poem.

“Creativity is leaving the village of your sanctuary to find the ‘wilderness’ of your intuitions, passions, convictions — where your voice speaks.”