Burning for his art

Erin Banwell

PHOTO BY vic cantu

As this story goes to press, tens of thousands of desert-loving partiers are reveling in the heat and art at Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Erin Banwell, an accomplished Chico artist, has been creating and bringing his elaborate, often pyrotechnic, pieces there for over a decade. Banwell is co-founder of Chico’s Idea Fab Labs (IFL), a cutting-edge artist community, school and laboratory. Ten of its members used IFL to create Burning Man artworks this year. See Banwell’s IFL studio at 603 Orange St., or online at www.IdeaFabLabs.com.

How many years have you been to Burning Man?

For the last 16 years straight, since 1998. I can’t go this year because my wife, Kristina, and I have a new baby boy, but I’m helping build Burning Man art pieces for three groups who are going.

What did you work on for Burning Man this year?

The most elaborate is a 24-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall electric sign with 1,500 LED pixels. It plays videos and colored patterns called “algorithmic rainbow orgasms.” Another is a caravan of six four-wheeled carts shaped like giant teapots called the “Lost Tea Party,” featured in the Huffington Post. The largest cart is 25 feet tall, and each has a big, cut-out wooden entrance on one side, and a 3-foot-diameter lattice window on the other.

I hear your most elaborate Burning Man piece was a giant, fire-spewing globe?

Yes, that was a 38-foot-tall, flaming, geodesic sphere called the “Pyrosphere” that I displayed there in 2010, 2011 and 2013. It had 91 flame spouts, the most of any Burning Man art piece at that time. It was also the most technologically advanced fire piece there, with animations and flame-shooting speeds controlled by selected audience members using an iPad. Before the festival, we allowed 470 ticket-holders to program the animations for it.

How is Idea Fab Labs doing?

Great. It’s a 6,900-square-foot space for the art community to connect. I helped found it with four others in May of 2013. Jordan Layman and I run it daily. We teach members to make art using our wood shop, jewelry zone and high-tech tools like our 3-D printer, laser cutter and a computer-controlled router.

What got you into all of this art?

My dad was an artist and I studied sculpture at Cabrillo College. But I really got inspired by the art of Burning Man. It had the most cutting-edge art scene in the world, where you could create large-scale, interactive pieces not possible at any other venue.

What do you have planned for the future?

We’re teaming up with MONCA [the Museum of Northern California Art] for an opening of three artists, yet to be named, at IFL Oct. 18, which will run for a month. I’m also going back to Burning Man next year. My wife insists on it, and she’s been going with me since 2008.