Petaluma artists prep for Burning Man

The work of local artists will be featured at the annual eclectic festival in the Nevada desert at the end of August.|

It’s hard to imagine that an artists’ festival in a dry, hot desert more than 300 miles away would have close ties with Petaluma. But as it turns out, Burning Man has become a showcase for many local artists, who create some of the magnificent structures erected at the Black Rock Desert, Nev. festival that takes place Aug. 30 through Sept. 7.

“We’re a huge Burning Man community for sure,” said Kevin Clark, whose 27-foot-tall Medusa can be seen rising above the fence at his Copeland Street workshop just off East Washington Street. “It just stems from the fact that we’re in Northern California and right close to the center of where Burning Man started.”

The first Burning Man was held at Baker Beach in San Francisco during the summer solstice in 1986. The founders built a wooden figure of a man and set it on fire, attracting a crowd of onlookers. Since then, the event has grown to more than 60,000 people who flock to the Nevada desert to celebrate art, community and self-expression - and to set fire to “The Man.”

Petaluma’s most well-known artist connection to Burning Man is sculptor David Best, who has been building intricate temples for the festival out of recycled wood since 2000. It’s through Best’s temple work that other local artists have been introduced to the Burning Man art scene.

Petaluma artist Jack Haye started working with Best on Burning Man temples in the late 1990s. About 10 years ago, he decided to branch out and work on interactive, thematic light displays for the base of “The Man.” Some of his work has been re-purposed at Zodiacs nightclub. This year, Haye is working on animated, large-size flip books.

“There have always been a few of us that have been involved with Burning Man,” said Haye. “Maybe it’s because Petaluma is a very artistic town. Between David Best and myself and others who have been doing it for a long time, we’ve gotten other people interested in it.”

It was Haye who introduced Clark to Best through the temple-building projects. Impressed by what he saw, Clark worked together with Best and Haye on the construction of the Temple of Tears in 2001 and the Temple of Joy in 2002.

“That was when I got my first taste of Burning Man,” said Clark, who created the Rhino Redemption car for last year’s event. “For some, Burning Man is a hippie fest, but for me, it’s an art festival. It’s all these other artists who give me inspiration to do what I do.”

Clark’s Medusa is constructed out of 600 recycled barrels, which will be covered with polished-mirror finished stainless steel. The 400-foot-long structure has 25 snake heads that Clark said will spit fire. Medusa’s face, which is modeled after his girlfriend, Michelle Ramatici, stands 14-feet tall and is made of stainless steel.

The Burning Man theme this year is “Carnival of Mirrors” and so Clark found inspiration for his project after looking through circus photos and seeing images of giant clown mouths that people could walk through.

“I took that idea and came up with Medusa,” said Clark, who applied for and received a grant from the Black Rock City Arts Foundation to build it. “The idea was to have Medusa at the entrance to the midway at Burning Man, but they liked my design so much that they’re going to put it in the Key Hole in the center of camp.”

The Key Hole is where major artwork of high status is placed, and is in line with “The Man” and temple in the center of Black Rock City.

Once finished, Clark said Medusa’s snake heads will spew fire at a rate of 100 gallons of propane an hour. Her eyes will blink, roll and light up with 16 red, green and blue LED lights. Clark said Medusa will be disassembled for transport via commercial trucks to Black Rock in just a few weeks.

Another Petaluma artist inspired by the work of Best and Haye is photographer Micheal Garlington. He met Best at Burning Man several years ago and was so inspired that he ended up working on Haye’s crew before deciding to create his own art for the festival. This year, Garlington and his partner, Natalia Bertotti, are busily constructing the Totem of Confessions. The structure, which is being built in a warehouse off East Washington and Weller streets, is made of plywood and covered with large prints of his portrait subjects, shells, gold-painted plaster skulls and an assortment of other objects.

It will be five-stories high when finished and it will burn, along with the Burning Man and all the other art at the end of the week-long festival.

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