Dragon maker

Gridley man’s three-decade labor of fire-breathing love

Sculptor Gabe Zanotto sets Claude’s sinuses aflame.

Sculptor Gabe Zanotto sets Claude’s sinuses aflame.

Photo by ken Smith

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The drive from downtown Gridley to the town’s pastoral outskirts is filled with interesting creatures. Watch closely and you’re likely to spot all manner of livestock and large birds ranging from red-tailed hawks to great blue herons. Turn down the right rural road and you might even spot an even more fantastic beast: a 19-foot-long, 7,000-pound, drooling, fire-and-rainbow-breathing dragon named Claude.

The rust-colored metal beast rests in the front yard of artist Gabe Zanotto and is the product of 30 years’ worth of his dreams and labor. Zanotto isn’t your typical artist—a rough-hewn, weathered, jack-of-all-trades who’s spent his life working to survive. “I’ve dug ditches, farmed, cut wood, welded, was even a structural mechanic in the Navy but that was short-lived,” he said. “Sculpting is the one thing I’d like to keep doing.”

To date, Zanotto has created a few other pieces and has several works in progress, but the dragon remains his opus and the main focus of his artistic expression. A childhood trip to Italy stirred a lifelong love of art, but Zanotto said he’d “never so much as drawn a single line” until he was moved to breathe life into Claude.

“It all started in 1979, I was cutting wood up in the hills and came across a giant fallen oak tree, more than 150-foot tall and six feet in diameter,” he recalled. “I cut into it and the termites had already eaten through all the soft wood, but at the middle was this hard piece, what I call the skull.”

Gabe Zanotto leans against his 7,000 pound creation.

Photo By Ken Smith

Zanotto first saw a horse’s head in the ancient oak’s heart, which he initially intended to form into a unicorn hunting trophy, but that wouldn’t quite work. One day he added a metal horn and the first four largest teeth, and everything started coming together.

“Sure enough, it wanted to be a dragon,” he said. “As soon as I started getting the head together, I knew I was going to need to build him a body.”

And what a body it is. Zanotto first built skids to mount the dragon on, then used three old wagon wheels to form the belly of the beast. He reinforced these with a framework of welded horseshoes that make up the dragon’s inner skin. Shovelheads form bristling scales lining the dragon’s spine and tail. While the whole creation is impressive from afar, it’s even more so up close. Nearly every inch of the dragon’s outer skin is made up of found, antique objects: toy guns and sheriffs’ badges, spent artillery shells, animal bones, crystals, bayonets and swords, as well as smaller knick-knacks—like teeth and semi-precious stones—collected into aged glass bottles.

But the dragon is most impressive when it comes to life. Swinging aside an old stove door, Zanotto climbs into the belly of the dragon, where a series of levers and wheels swings its head and neck up and down, its jaws open and shut. Propane is piped from a tank behind his seat to the dragon’s nostrils, which shoot jets of flames several feet long. At will, the artist can make his dragon drool and spit water: “When you mix the water with a bit of baby oil, the flames shine through and make rainbows,” Zanotto said, barely containing a bit of awe in his own creation. “The possibilities are endless.”

He is currently working on a new fire device to enable a 20-foot flame to shoot from Claude’s mouth when the dragon rears its head back. He is hoping to finish it up in time for a possible trip to Burning Man this summer; Zanotto is currently going through the approval process and seeking grants to fund the trip.

In the past 30 years, the dragon—which the artist mounts on a custom-built truck when transporting—has appeared at events including children’s birthday parties, renaissance fairs, and many more, even a friend’s funeral.

“I pulled up outside the church and the preacher ran out and just threw his hands up in the air,” Zanotto recalled. “I thought he was gonna get angry, start throwing a fit and cursing the dragon, but he said it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen show up to a funeral.”