Burning visions

There’s plenty of art to see before you reach the playa

The city plans to decide soon whether the Space Whale will remain in City Plaza.

The city plans to decide soon whether the Space Whale will remain in City Plaza.

Reno is home to a growing number of Burning Man art pieces. There’s the obvious reason—proximity. The event is 120-odd miles from here, and by Nevada standards, that’s right in our backyard.

And there are a few others, too. Burner art is a relative bargain compared with, say, commissioning a large, new work from scratch—an important concern for a city this size. A lot of Burner artists live right here in town. And we have a mayor who’s so into Burner art that she brought a group of other cities’ mayors to the playa last year to show them around.

Here’s our take on some of the highlights.

In Reno

Better believe it

Not long after the “Believe” sculpture appeared in downtown Reno’s City Plaza, it became a gathering spot, selfie magnet, and practically required element in the city’s marketing materials. It even has city-assigned hashtags, including a Spanish one, “#CreemosReno” (which means “we believe in Reno.”) But the genesis of the piece has a different story.

“Believe,” has become a Reno icon, has a good, quirky story behind it.

Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomburg are ex-spouses who are still in business together. She designs in California. He fabricates in Reno. They made “Believe” in 2013, when the Burning Man theme was “Cargo Cult,” a reference to a belief among some remote, 19th-century societies that benevolent shipments of modern goods might sudddenly be dropped in any time.

Schomburg said the theme made him think of “aliens and gods and people from the sky coming down to these islands, bringing supplies to the natives.” In keeping with Burner culture’s penchant for tricksterism, Schomburg and Kimpton decided their sculpture should cheekily advise people to “believe” in such myths.

In addition to “Believe,” they’ve made several other 12-foot, one-word sculptures reading “Mom,” “home,” “earth,” or “magic.” Some are now installed in places like Florida, Texas, Shanghai and Puerto Rico.

The duo’s steel letters are always perforated with a grid of bird-shaped cutouts. Shomburg said that shortly after Kimpton’s father passed away several years ago, a flock of sparrows flew past the window. The sparrow shape became an ongoing memorial gesture. Shomburg distributes the hand-sized bird pieces to Burners as gifts. “I’ve given out probably tens of thousands of those,” he said.

Public space

In 2016, the Pier Group made the “Space Whale,” a giant humpback whale with a baby whale by her side, out of steel and stained glass. In 2017, the City of Reno leased the piece. The two-year lease expires this month, and the decision about whether to extend it or rotate in a new piece is slated to be addressed at a City Council meeting soon.

Anatomically correct

The Reno Playa Art Project will see some new work this fall.

Bryan Tedrick from Sonoma County, California, makes gorgeous, detailed, sculptures of animals and abstractions that fit into many kinds of environments, from the playa to several California cities to private homes. His “Portal of Evolution”—a graceful, gently spinning, artfully rusting steel piece in Bicentennial Park—stands out as as feminist triumph against public squeamishness. Of course, cities and committees need to consider community standards and notions of “decency” when they decide which artworks to put in public places. But somehow, when Reno decided to upgrade this piece from a temporary installation to a permanent acquisition in 2015, everyone just called it “a butterfly,” and anyone who may have vetoed it for clearly representing a vagina and ovaries somehow just kept mum.

If you don’t buy our interpretation, consider that the event theme in 2014 was “Fertility,” and consider that Tedrick told a City of Reno blogger, “I realized we all enter this world through the female body, and so my sculpture is based on female anatomy … to symbolize metamorphosis and rebirth.”

Made in the shade

This year on the playa, you might happen upon the “Plaza of Introspectus” by Seattle collective Iron Monkeys. According to Burning Man’s website, it’s “a 60-foot wide gathering space laid out in the shape of a compass” with a flaming steel centerpiece, metal benches and fire zen gardens to chill in. And if you stop by the playground in Whitaker Park, a few blocks northwest of the downtown casinos, you can chill on the benches that are part of one of the collective’s early works—and one of Reno’s first Burner pieces—2007’s “Tree Spire”—a tree with spiral-tipped steel tendrils instead of leaves.

Neon Line

Have you noticed some some changes in downtown Reno in the last year or two? Many mid-century motels and vintage homes have been razed, leaving a scourge of empty lots. The new owner of most of these lots—also the new owner of the Sands and Gold Dust West Casinos—is Jacobs Entertainment, a Colorado development company with a big plan. Other than calling this big plan an “entertainment district,” Jacobs hasn’t released a lot of specifics.

Some locals see the mysterious, pending development as a promise of the city’s long-term economic health. Others are concerned about the low-income residents displaced when the weekly motels were demolished. In July, Jacobs rebranded part of East Fourth Street as the “Neon Line,” installing four sculptures from Burning Man 2018 and announcing plans to add to the collection and rotate it every two years. While we’re among those concerned about the role this project plays in the housing crisis, we’ve gotta admit—blinky, oversized artwork and downtown neon do look good together.

“Guardian of Eden” is just one marker of the NMA’s Burner friendliness.

Symbolic flower

One of the real benefits of viewing Burning Man artwork on the playa, instead of in town, is that most of the time you can climb on it. This benefit comes with a stern disclaimer, written on each ticket: “I acknowledge and fully understand that as a participant, I will be engaging in activities that involve risk of serious injury, including permanent disability and death …” But if a museum tried to offer such a tradeoff, its legal team would have a heart attack.

In 2007, the Nevada Museum of Art installed New Yorker Kate Raudenbush’s plasma-cut steel lotus flower, “Guardian of Eden.” On the playa, the artist had called the flower a “set piece,” a thing to stand on, play in, and, for at least four couples, use as a wedding venue. So, admittedly, its re-assignment seemed a little abrupt to those of us with kid-like inclinations to climb the art whenever possible.

But, in 2008, after a short trial period, the museum declared the “Guardian of Eden” a permanent fixture of its front patio, and since then the flower has come to symbolize something else entirely—a healthy relationship between a formal institution and a more anarchic one. As part of its mission to show and archive artwork that relates to land and environments, the NMA has, over the years, shown Burner costumes, photographs, artifacts—and even added a Burning Man archive for scholarly research. And while you still can’t climb this piece, it’s lovely to explore close up. By day, it plays with sunlight and shadow. By night, its blue lighting is magnetic.

Sun-proof palette

In 2011, architect Mark Szulgit responded to the city’s request for sculpture proposals that would re-use metal tubes, beams and posts from the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. Szulgit won the commission, made the enormous, thistle-shaped “Reno Star,” and showed it on the playa. The city installed it in 2012 at Virginia Street and McCarran Boulevard.

“It was originally white on the playa,” said Reno Public Art Program Coordinator Megan Berner. Per Szulgit’s request, it was painted red when it moved into town. Red works great for the Golden Gate Bridge, but, said Berner, “When it came time to repaint it, because we have such intense UV here, the red faded. We’d have to paint it more often if it was red.” Plus, white would allow for more dynamic lighting and better nighttime visibility. The artist OKed a switch back to white.

“Tree Spire,” was one of the city’s first Burner art pieces.

Szulgit died from brain cancer in 2018. His “Reno Star,” which initially garnered a fair amount of snark, has settled into the cityscape as a local fixture it’s hard to imagine that intersection without.

Playa park

Most artwork shown at Burning Man does not leave the event with a ready buyer waiting for it. Some artists burn their work. More often, a piece will linger in a yard or warehouse as the artist looks for the piece’s next home. Meanwhile, in downtown Reno, a former motel lot lingered empty for a while until Maria Partridge, one of the Burning Man art department’s project managers, arranged to transform it into the Reno Playa Art Project on Virginia and Sixth Streets, across from Circus Circus. Each year, a handful of small-to-medium sculptures are freed from a long, dark warehouse stay and placed in this one-square-block lot, where there’s quite a bit of foot traffic. It also showcases work by local muralists Joe C. Rock and Bryce Chisholm.

Partridge told us about the park’s fall plans by email: “’Tonglen,’ the zen face, is leaving. The others are staying, and we will be adding two to three more pieces.”

Prehistoric plaything

In 2013, a Reno team built the Ichthyosaur Puppet Project, a 60-foot laminated plywood replica of Nevada’s official state fossil, which was also a marionette with articulated jaws, fins and spine. (Disclosure: This author was a member of the team, which was led by her spouse.)

The “Icky,” now a static sculpture instead of a puppet, is on indefinite loan to the Discovery Museum, where it’s suspended in the front lobby. The Discovery is always a fun stop for families with kids—and a drive-by glimpse as you head up Center Street after hours isn’t a bad way to see the piece.

Access to “Baba Yaga’s House” is limited to volunteer groups—at least for now.

PHOTO/Courtesy of Burning Man

Out of town

Full steam ahead near Gerlach

In 2016, Burning Man bought Fly Ranch, a property near Gerlach with an otherworldly, geothermal geyser. Since then, two Reno art crews have installed giant sculptures there, marking the beginning of what may one day be an art park. Jessi Janusee and crew re-built Baba Yaga’s House, an opulently detailed storybook cottage from Slavic and Russian folklore, perched on giant steel chicken legs, and Matt Schultz’s Pier Group re-erected The Pier, a gently sloping boardwalk to nowhere, replete with bouys and fishing nets. (Disclosure: This author pitched in a little labor on that project.)

For most of the year, visitors can explore the geyser and The Pier on a ticketed nature walk. Baba Yaga’s House is in sight, but docents are still working out the logistics of offering up-close access.

Fly Ranch Operations Manager Zac Cirivello said that ticket sales will be suspended for the duration of this year’s Burning Man event, as, last year, “It proved logistically messy.”

There are other ways to explore these artworks, too. “We do work weekends throughout the year,” said Cirivello. “Friends [of Black Rock High Rock] hosts public campouts, and we have a Guardians program where folks in small groups can be trained as stewards of the property and come camp … for a few days at a time year-round.”

Made in the shade in Fernley

In 2012, Bay Area artists Max Poynton and Andrew Grinberg gathered about 100 volunteers to flatten 75,000 bottle caps, wire them into petal-shaped sheets, and assemble them into a lotus flower atop a sturdy, climbable wooden pavilion. “Bottlecap Gazebo” has been stationed in Fernley, 34 miles from Reno, for a few years now. To reach it, take Exit 46 from I-80 and drive two miles on North Main Street. In addition to being a testament to recycled materials and community efforts, the gazebo is also a lovely place to enjoy what we unequivocally deem the standout sandwich of Lyon County—tandoori chicken on fresh-made naan from Gourmet Deli in the 76 gas station, directly across the street from the sculpture.

Portal to a desert tech park

“Transition Portal” never actually showed at Burning Man. It was commissioned by the Nevada Department of Transportation. But we’re going to count it anyway because its creator, Kate Raudenbush, is a frequent Burner artist who’s reconciled a strong, Eastern-esque festival aesthetic with the needs of public art and gallery art. Raudenbush aimed to bridge humanity and technology, and the piece is a gateway to a developed industrial park that’s home to the Nevada branches of tech companies like Tesla, Google and Switch, situated amid thousands of acres of open space and a lot of wild horses. To find it, Exit I-80 on USA Parkway and drive approximately a quarter mile south. It’s on the right. You can’t miss it. But be ready to soak it in quickly. There’s no parking and no stopping, so this is a drive-by viewing experience only.