Burn artists

Meet locals who are bringing big art to Burning Man

Zack Medina (top), Jessi Janusee and Lee Bowen pose on the first floor of Baba Yaga’s House.

Zack Medina (top), Jessi Janusee and Lee Bowen pose on the first floor of Baba Yaga’s House.

Photo/jeri chadwell

There was a time when many local non-Burners’ experiences with the Burning Man event were limited to what can be witnessed annually in the city—an incursion of mostly clean RVs and smaller vehicles bearing Burners in mostly clean costumes, packing streets and grocery store parking lots, crowding into the Costco in a rush to empty shelves of bottled water, among other things. A bit more than a week later, the exodus from the desert where the event takes place, about 100 miles north of Reno, brings a swarm of mud-caked RVs and cars bearing Burners in dusty costumes, lining up at car washes around town.

It’s a frustration for some, a source of jokes for the more even tempered, a serious boon to the local economy. In 2017, the Reno-Tahoe International Airport alone reported an estimated economic impact of $11 million from the event—revenue earned “from airline ticket sales, car rentals, and money spent in the restaurants and retail shops.” And, these days, evidence of Burning Man persists long after Burners are finished leaving mud in the car washes and money in the coffers of local businesses.

Ambitious, often fantastical, large-scale artworks are one of the primary reasons people venture to the playa. And more and more often, these pieces are being installed around town post-event—a huge, stained-glass whale in Reno’s City Plaza, a butterfly sculpture on the Riverwalk north of Wingfield Park, the “Playa Art Park” near the downtown casinos, a 46-foot-tall and 60-foot-wide metal thistle at the intersection of South McCarran Boulevard and Virginia Street.

Some locals might not be aware that many of these public art installations were originally debuted during Burning Man. And odds are high that even fewer know how many of these pieces were made by local hands. Every year, however, artists around the region join others around the globe in turning their attention toward creating art for the desert festival. Here’s a sneak peek at a few of this year’s local projects and the artists behind them.

Bloom 2018 by Peter Hazel

Peter Hazel is a tile and granite contractor by trade who’s spent the last several years working to transition his art avocation into a vocation. These days, Hazel spends on average 12 hours a day working in his studio inside the Artech makers’ space off West Fourth Street. His corner of the large warehouse is packed with pieces of commissioned artworks in progress and parts belonging to his project for this year’s Burning Man festival. According to Hazel, taking art to the playa has helped him achieve his goal of being a professional artist.

“I’m getting noticed out there, which is great,” he said. “I’m going to want to bring something out there every year. Burning Man is such a showcase for artisans. It’s really amazing. You get work out of it. Someone will come out and see what you do and say, ‘Hey, maybe you could do this for us.’ It leads to more work. It’s a launching pad.”

This will be Hazel’s sixth time at Burning Man, and his fifth as an artist. He’s dubbed his project for this year “Bloom 2018.” It’s a 40-foot-tall glass, steel and chrome jellyfish—its bell comprised of thousands of smaller jellyfish created by melting and reforming old booze bottles and defective ashtray attempts in a kiln.

“Bloom” reflects Hazel’s larger body of work, which, to date, has been ocean-centric, including things like a large-scale manta ray and an equally massive octopus. Many of his current commissioned works also feature sea creatures. But the artist admitted he’s ready to start drawing inspiration from above water.

Peter Hazel built a small-scale model of his project Bloom.


“I’m going to be known as the sea creature guy, and so I want to step away from that, do other things and experiment and go a little more abstract—figure my way through this,” Hazel said.

He just needs to finish “Bloom” first. For Hazel, it’s more than another aquatic-themed art piece—and taking it to Burning Man this year is a point of pride, as a well as a sort of salvage mission. That’s because Bloom actually debuted on the playa last year.

“And we didn’t pull it off,” he said. “We didn’t finish it properly. All of the glass wasn’t in. We just ran out of time. The lights were weak. … It was a weak art piece, and I was really disappointed. So I asked to bring it back and they said yes.”

This year, Hazel is replacing last year’s white lights inside the jellyfish with colored lights and completely refashioning its tentacles out of chrome ensconced steel with LED lighting piped down the sides. Part of the funding is coming in the form of an honorarium—a small amount of money the Burning Man organization doles out to a limited number of artists each year.

By the time this story goes to press, Hazel will already be on the playa installing “Bloom.” He’s headed out earlier this year to ensure there’s time to bring his project together. After that, he’ll return to his commissioned works and start thinking about new themes for future personal projects.

“I think it would be fun to do a big alligator,” Hazel said. “We could make square tiles. I love glass. I don’t know. We’ll see. It might be another sea creature. … I’m still learning. I’m a fairly new artist. I’m still finding my way with art, my style, I guess you could say.”

Baba Yaga’s House by Jessi Sprocket Janusee/font>

Jessi Sprocket Janusee is known around Reno for her art exhibitions, writing and marketing work. She’s also the coordinator for public programs and communications for the Generator, a non-profit artists’ workspace located in a Sparks warehouse. It’s where her most recent Burning Man project was conceived of and constructed.

Janusee’s name is attached to several well-known honoraria projects of recent years—including “Space Whale,” the aforementioned stained-glass whale in Reno’s City Plaza—but 2018 is the first year in which she’s received an honorarium for a project of her own. She’s using the opportunity for a passion project—the creation of something she’s always wanted to see on the playa.

In Slavic lore, the witch Baba Yaga is often described as a crone who travels by way of a large, flying mortar and wields a pestle. The house in which she lives on the edge of the woods is most often described as literally “chicken legged.” Janusee’s project for 2018, “Baba Yaga’s House,” is a real-world imagining of this home.

An artist’s rendering shows Baba Yaga’s House on the playa.


“I always wanted to have it there,” Janusee said. “I was waiting for the Russian Burners or the Ukrainian Burners or the Lithuanian Burners to bring it out. … It just kept not happening. … It just felt like it was time to bring Baba out. I was like, ‘It’s got to happen, and I guess I’m going to be the person to do it.'”

With help from a crew of volunteers and friends—including her significant other—Janusee has built a two-story house clad in whimsically misaligned wood. It comes complete with dormers and a roof covered in ornate early 20th century tiles that were sourced locally. The 12-foot-tall chicken legs upon which it stands are made of steel. Inside, Janusee plans to have interactive elements—but she’s not keen on spoiling the surprise by discussing them.

Much like Hazel, Janusee’s independent art projects have tended to follow a loose theme. Her exhibitions of recent years have included “Hedgewitch Haus” and “The Nestweb of the Spiderbird,” both of which explored the intersections between the manmade world and nature—both with an emphasis on strong, magical matriarchal figures. Janusee sees Baba Yaga in this light as well.

“A lot of people feel like she’s this one-dimensional, evil character—but she’s the inspiration for the fairy godmother in Cinderella and also the inspiration for the evil witch in Hansel and Gretel that eats kids,” she said. “I think it depends on you. If you’re worth it, if you prove yourself—your character defines her. I feel like she’s the embodiment of nature. That makes sense to me, right? Nature can kill you, easily, or it can really help you and give you life.”

On the playa, Janusee hopes to channel her own inner Baba Yaga.

“I was just talking with my crew earlier and was fantasizing about dressing up as Yaga and being down by the feet with a broom, yelling and cleaning the dirt off and cursing the desert—like, ‘House! Why did you bring us here?'” she said. “I want to bring more of that foresty darkness to the playa. I think it plays well. I think even with the Space Whale—it being a whale in the middle of the salt flats is really cool.”

Creu Hudol by Kelly Smith Cassidy

Unlike Hazel, Kelly Smith Cassidy is still somewhat new to Burning Man—but she’s an established, full-time artist.

“I’ve been a sculptor for 22 years,” she said. “Both of my parents are full-time artists, so they taught me.”

After taking a trip to Ecuador, where she partook of ayahuasca—a hallucinogenic ritual brew made from a tropical vine native to the Amazon region—she returned home with the goal of attending Burning Man, something she said she’d previously been a bit nervous to do, having heard a lot about its party atmosphere. Last year was her first time. She went as just a participant but decided shortly after arriving that she’d return in 2018 as an artist.

An artist’s rendering shows Kelly Smith Cassidy’s project <i>Creu Hudol</i>.


This year, Smith Cassidy submitted eight proposals featuring renderings of panels for the inside of the Burning Man temple. She received rejection letters on each before receiving notice that a ninth proposal—a rendering of an automaton she wanted to build—had been chosen to be featured on the pavilion that surrounds “the man” at Burning Man.

Smith Cassidy’s automaton will be one of a dozen “burn bots” that will go up in flames with the man when it’s burned at the end of the event.

“There are 12 of us that were selected for this project, and we were only given notice the second week of July, so I’m sure all of us are kind of scrambling,” she said. “I’ve only been to Burning Man once, but as far as I know, they kind of like to think up last minute things … like, just today, in their newsletter, it says, ‘Calling all artists! Send us your images, and we’re going to make lanterns for Center Camp.'”

Smith Cassidy’s burn bot is called “Creu Hudol"—meaning “magical being” in Welsh. It’s a six-foot-tall, elegant female figure made from wood, glass and some metal and featuring a crown made from rows of quartz crystals. For the artist, it’s more than a first-time Burning Man submission; it’s also the first time she’s relying heavily on the help of others to complete a project.

“I designed it all, and I’ve had to have it made for me, except for the legs and the arms. So it’s a little frustrating waiting for things to come in.”

The torso is being made at the Generator using a computer-controlled cutting machine called a computer numerical control router.

“It’s a CNC model that’s cut out in slices, and then I’m gluing them together,” Smith Cassidy said. “The hands are artist’s model hands. They’re coming in today. The boots are children’s ski boots that I’m going to spray paint.”

In fact, the entire body of the automaton will be painted silver, to include an antique glass head the artist purchased on eBay.

“I wanted it to speak to a more elegant future,” Smith Cassidy said.

When it comes to watching her elegant creation burn at the end of the event, Smith Cassidy said she’s not upset. She’s too excited by this year of firsts, which includes her first honorarium from Burning Man.

Kelly Smith Cassidy carves a leg for <i>Creu Hudol</i> from wood at her some in South Lake Tahoe.


“I got an honorarium,” she said. “I didn’t think I would get one, because I haven’t done something before. It’s a double-edged sort, like, you’ve got to have one in order to get one. It was really a surprise. And my first honorarium project is burning—which is OK, it’s Burning Man.”

Blacksmith shop by Anton Standteiner

Anton “Toni” Standteiner’s has taken several pieces of large-scale art to Burning Man over the years. He’s one of the owners of Mountain Forge in Truckee—a family-owned blacksmith shop that’s been turning out commissioned metalwork and public art for half a century.

His name is on Burning Man’s honoraria list for the third consecutive year, but Standteiner doesn’t simply make art for the event. His aim is to get others to, inside a blacksmith shop that he, his family and colleagues from around the country and world have brought to Burning Man annually since 2016, when the organization’s theme was “Da Vinci’s Workshop.”

And although Anton’s wife, Jennifer Standteiner, is quick to point out that the Mountain Forge isn’t involved as a business in the Burning Man blacksmith shop, it is often a source of shop’s trained talent—and was its initial inspiration.

“What we do is really incredible, and getting an opportunity to share that with people was really one of the motivations,” she said.

Burners can come to the blacksmith shop to work one-on-one with a professional blacksmith in creating a piece of metal art.

“Every year, there’s a form. One year it was feathers. Another year it was butterflies,” Jennifer said. “We have a form that we bring, that’s already cut out. What the people get to do is … manipulate that butterfly or whatever shape into whatever they want. They’re putting it in the fire. It’s very traditional. … They use the anvil with the forge. And the forge is a hand-cranked, traditional forge. … They use a traditional anvil and traditional tools. It’s pretty basic, but it’s really exciting for people to strike a hot piece of steel and see it move.”

It also serves another purpose—helping to solving a problem the Standteiner’s see in Burning Man.

“There’s a little bit of a problem at Burning Man, with it modernizing,” Jennifer said. “You get a lot of spectators. You get a lot of people who don’t bring art at all, who don’t do art or anything. They just come to look. And they just come to stare. We decided we help solve that problem by bringing something functional and something interactive.”

According to Jennifer, the dollar amount of the honorarium her husband has received from Burning Man has increased each year, because she said, “they recognize the value of what we’re doing.” This year, the Standteiners asked specifically for additional funding—which they received. In years past, they’ve used borrowed forges for the event. Now, they’re hoping to use the additional funds to build their own so they can bring them for the week-long event each year but also use them to teach blacksmithing to people off the playa during the other 51.

“Burning Man is really helping to fund art and the creative process in communities, not just during the event,” Jennifer said. Ω