The mystery of La Contessa

A galleon destroyed by fire. An expensive missing statue. Welcome to one of the great mysteries of the Burning man festival.

Photo By Tychopf

Who torched a magnificent art car was only one of the mysteries surrounding the demise of La Contessa. La Contessa was a Spanish galleon, amazingly authentic and true to 16th-century design standards in all but a couple respects. It was half the size of the ships that carried colonizers to this continent and pirates through the Caribbean. And it was built around a school bus, designed to trawl the Burning Man festival and the Black Rock Desert environs, where it became perhaps the most iconic and surreal art piece in the event’s history.The landcraft wasn’t exactly easy to navigate. It was heavy and turned slowly. The person driving the school bus couldn’t see much, so a navigator sitting on the bow needed to communicate to the driver by radio. Those sitting in the crow’s nest felt the vessel gently sway as if it were rocking on waves.

Inside, it was opulent, with a fancy bar, gilded frames, velvet trim—a cross between an elaborate bordello and a captain’s stateroom. And adorning its bow was a priceless work of art, a figure of a woman by San Francisco sculptor Monica Maduro.

The ship and its captains and crew—most of whom are members of San Francisco’s popular Extra Action Marching Band—hit more than their share of storms in the desert, developing a storied outlaw reputation that eventually got them banned from Burning Man. By 2005, much of the galleon’s crew was unsure if they’d ever return. The ship was no longer welcome at the Ranch staging area run by the event’s organizers and unable to legally navigate the highways without being dismantled. So it returned to its berth on Grant Ranch, on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where Joan Grant had welcomed La Contessa and two other large artworks since 2003.

Then late last summer, someone looted the ship, stealing Maduro’s piece, which was hidden deep within the ship’s hold. Maduro and others have kept the theft a secret until now in the hope that they might find it, fearing that publicity and police involvement might drive the piece further underground, particularly after the reported sighting of a photo of the figurehead on, with a caption indicating it was the latest addition to someone’s living room.

And in early December, apparently without warning, prominent local landowner Mike Stewart—new owner of the ranch—set La Contessa on fire and had her charred remains hauled away.

It was a sad and unceremonious ending for La Contessa, a subject of ongoing legal actions, and an illustration of what an explosion of creativity leaves in its wake—a challenge that Burning Man faces as it seeks to become more environmentally responsible as it grows.

It was also a sign of the lingering tension between the giant countercultural festival and the residents of Hualapai Valley, who endure the annual onslaught of tens of thousands of visitors to their remote and sparsely populated region, along with the cultural and economic offerings they bring.

Grant had recently sold her 3,000-acre spread (although she retained a lifelong lease of her ranch home) to her neighbor, Mike Stewart, a landlord who didn’t share Grant’s love for the annual Burning Man event and its colorful denizens. In fact, Stewart led a legal and regulatory battle against Burning Man in 2003, trying unsuccessfully to shut down the Ranch and thus kill the event.

“I’ve been with them since they started out there, when they were just little bitty kids…. I adopted them, and they’ve always been supergood to me,” Grant said. Although she owned the Black Rock Salloon (which she spelled “like a drunk would say it” and later sold to the Burning Man organization), Grant said she was initially ostracized by many of the locals for supporting the event.

While La Contessa‘s creator, Simon Cheffins (who also founded the band Extra Action), fruitlessly looked for land that might permanently house the galleon, it sat at the ranch, battened down against the elements and interlopers. When a grease fire destroyed Grant’s ranch house last year, sending her into the nearby town of Fernley, La Contessa had nobody to watch over her.

A question of intent
Stewart is one of the biggest property owners in the region. In addition to possessing land and water rights that would be lucrative in any development project, he owns Orient Farms, Empire Farms and a four-megawatt geothermal power plant.

He leased Grant Ranch (also known as Lawson Ranch) for five years before buying it in October 2005. In that transaction, he gave Grant a lifelong lease on her house, a provision she believed also applied to the art pieces she stored within sight of her home.

That was before the fire, which police say Stewart set Dec. 5, 2006, around noon.

“My understanding was it was OK to park it there. But I guess he had it burned down,” Grant said. “As far as I’m concerned, it was arson.”

Washoe County sheriff’s deputy Tracy Bloom said that he considers the fire to be third-degree arson, which is punishable by one to six years in prison under Nevada law. Yet Bloom said he believes Stewart thought he had a right to burn and remove the seemingly abandoned vehicle and therefore lacks the criminal intent needed to have charges brought against him.

“According to him, they had attempted to contact the owner to no avail, so he decided to set it on fire,” Bloom said.

He wrote in his police report, “I asked Stewart if he was the one that set the La Contessa on fire and he said, ‘YES, I DID.’ I asked him why he decided to burn it. Stewart said, ‘Because the property was abandoned and left there,’ and ‘I was forced to clean it up.'”

The report indicates that Bloom, who lives in Gerlach, helped organize a community cleanup at that time, in which a scrap dealer named Stan Leavers was removing old cars and other junk. “Stewart said that was the biggest reason for burning the La Contessa so that it could be removed by Leavers,” Bloom wrote. Nonetheless, he said that didn’t give Stewart the right to burn the artwork.

The figurehead of the ship survived only because a thief got to it before the ship was burned.

Photo By Monica Maduro

“I told him, ‘You can’t just do that, and if I found any intent or malice on this, you’re going to jail,’ “ Bloom said. “But I don’t believe there was any malicious intent. If I felt like there was any malicious intent, I would have arrested him right there. I thought that boat was really cool. It was one of the coolest things out there.”

Many Burners who live in Gerlach—a town with a population of a few hundred people that happens to be the nearest civilization to Burning Man’s summer festival site—have a hard time believing Stewart made an innocent mistake. “I think it was a malicious arson,” Caleb Schaber, also known as Shooter, said. “He’s the guy who tried to shut down Burning Man, and he associated La Contessa with Burning Man.”

Stewart refused to comment for this story, referring questions to his lawyers at the Reno firm of Robison, Belaustegi, Sharp, and Low. Dearmond Sharp, a partner in the firm, belittled the value of the piece and implied Stewart was within his rights as a property owner to burn it.

“What would you do if someone left some junk on your property?” he asked.

Nevada law calls for property owners to notify vehicle owners “by registered or certified mail that the vehicle has been removed and will be junked or dismantled or otherwise disposed of unless the registered owner or the person having a security interest in the vehicle responds and pays the costs of removal.”

“What he should have done is get letters out and make a good-faith effort to find a [vehicle license number] or see who the owner is, little things like that,” Bloom told us. Nonetheless, after talking with the prosecutor, Bloom said criminal charges are unlikely. He said, “Chances are this is something they will pursue civilly,” he said.

Also destroyed in the fire, according to Schaber, was an International Scout truck with a new motor and a TIG welder inside, owned by Dogg Erickson, which he said he parked alongside La Contessa so it would be partly protected from sandstorms.

“Everything was toast,” Erickson said. “I was pretty pissed, both about my truck and La Contessa. It floors me, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Cheffins, mechanical design engineer Greg Jones and others associated with La Contessa and Burning Man all say they never received any message from Stewart asking for La Contessa to be removed. And Cheffins said he believed he had the implied consent of Stewart to store the ship where it was.

Jones and Cheffins said that while they were securing La Contessa for the winter of 2004-5, Stewart drove by and talked to them but said nothing about removing the ship. “We talked to him about all kinds of stuff, and we were impressed by him,” Jones said.

La Contessa caretaker Mike Snook also said that he met Stewart in 2005 while he was with the ship and that Stewart didn’t express a desire to have the piece off the property. Jones said there were plenty of people in town connected to Burning Man through whom Stewart could have communicated: “It’s a visible enough art piece that if he really wanted to get it off his property, someone would have known where we are,” Jones said.

Burning Man spokesperson Marian Goodell said Stewart never contacted the organization and that if he had, it would have facilitated the piece’s removal from the property.

“We were surprised to hear about the fire, absolutely shocked,” she said. “It was a very iconic piece, and a lot of people are going to miss La Contessa.”

According to Bloom, Stewart also claims to have contacted Grant about removing La Contessa and other items from the property. “He contacted her and said, ‘What are you going to do with it,’ and she said, ‘Do what you want with it,'” Bloom said. But Grant (whom Bloom did not interview for his report) told us, “That’s not truthful,” adding that she hasn’t spoken with Stewart in a very long time and wouldn’t have given him permission to destroy the artwork.

Sharp did not directly answer questions about what specific actions Stewart took to contact the galleon’s owners, but he said, “He didn’t know the owners, and they weren’t identified. … The vehicle wasn’t licensed and had no registration and wasn’t legal to drive on the road. It wasn’t a vehicle.”

Whether or not it was a vehicle is what triggers the notification provisions under Nevada law: The section on abandoned vehicles prohibits leaving them on someone’s property “without the express or implied consent of the owner.”

“It was dumped there, and there is no written consent or implied consent,” Sharp said. “In our eyes, it was a piece of junk.”

But Ragi Dindial, an attorney working with the La Contessa crew, said that this “junk” was actually a valuable artwork and that he is working on filing a claim with Stewart’s insurance company, alleging the fire was a result of Stewart’s negligence. If that doesn’t work, he may file a civil lawsuit.

And then there’s the lingering question of the sculpture, which survived the fire because of the theft—but still hasn’t seen the light of day. “It’s one of the greatest mysteries in the San Francisco underground,” longtime Burning Man artist Flash Hopkins said. “Where is the figurehead?”

In December, <span style="font-style:normal">La Contessa</span> was burned by a longtime critic of the Burning Man festival where the ship had “sailed.” This photo was taken by an as-yet unidentified witness.

Building a galleon
La Contessa‘s massive scale has created problems since the beginning, when Cheffins had the idea in 2002 of rejuvenating Burning Man and his own enthusiasm for it by building a Spanish galleon. It was a huge undertaking that created logistical nightmares.

“It was such an ambitious and, I think, exciting idea. … I wanted to do something fairly splashy, and the idea of a ship had always been powerful,” Cheffins said. “I was strong on the fantasy-imagination side of things and stupid enough to want to do it. Luckily, my ass was saved by Greg Jones.”

Jones, a mechanical design engineer, had been playing trumpet in Extra Action for a few months when Cheffins pitched the La Contessa project at one of the band’s rehearsals.

“I said, ‘Who’s going to design it?'” Jones said, describing the moment when he took on the project of a lifetime. “That first night I had in my mind a way to do it. … For me, it was a challenge of how do you make it, and how do you get it out there.”

Hopkins said there should have been another consideration: “You have to build something that you can take apart. Sadly, that was part of its demise.”

But that doesn’t take away from what he said was one of the best art projects in the event’s history: “What those guys did when they built that ship was incredible because of the detail of it. It was an incredible feat.”

The idea of a ship fit in beautifully with Burning Man’s theme that year, the Floating World, so Black Rock LLC awarded Cheffins, Jones and their crew a $15,000 grant, which would ultimately cover about half the project’s costs, even with the hundreds of volunteer person-hours that would be poured into it.

Cheffins researched galleons, learned to do riggings as a volunteer at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, directed the project and insisted on materials and details that would make La Contessa authentic. Jones translated that vision into reality by creating computer-aided architectural designs for the ship’s steel skeleton, a hull that would hang from that skeleton and be supported by an axle and hidden wheels separate from those of the bus, and the decks that would support dozens of passengers and hide the bus and frame—all with modular designs that could be broken down for transport to Nevada on two flatbed trucks.

The ship was built mostly at the Monkey Ranch art space in Oakland and a nearby lot the crew leased for three months. “My mom even helped,” Jones said. She joined nearly 100 volunteers.

Meanwhile, Cheffins commissioned Extra Action dancer, event producer, and sculptor Maduro to build a figurehead that would be the most visible and defining artistic detail on the galleon. Cheffins conveyed his vision—including the need for it to be removable so a live model could sit in her place—and Maduro added her own research and artistic touches.

“We wanted her to be beautiful, sexy, strong and also unique,” Maduro said.

All the ship figureheads that she researched had open eyes, except one that had one eye closed, purportedly the same eye in which the ship’s captain was blind. That gave Maduro the idea of a figurehead with closed eyes.

“The figurehead is supposed to guide you through the night and see you to safety,” she said. “We liked the idea that our figurehead would guide us blindly.”

The face was designed from a mold of their friend: model and actress Jessa Brie Berkner. The armature was wood and metal, covered in carved foam coated in fiberglass veils dipped in marine epoxy, with sculpting epoxy over that, and wearing a real fabric skirt dipped in epoxy.

“This is one of the most emotional projects I’ve ever been a part of,” said Maduro, who spent six years creating lifelike exhibits for natural history museums across the country, among other projects. “It was a magical mix of all these individuals that made it happen.”

Yet there wasn’t enough magic to allow the shipbuilders to meet their schedule. They weren’t where they’d hoped to be when the trucks arrived to haul La Contessa to the playa. The crew spent the final weeks before Burning Man—and most of their time at the event—frantically trying to finish the project, completing it just a couple days before the event ended. Jones recalled, “We stained it Friday afternoon during a sandstorm.”

Ah, but once it was finished, it was an amazing thing to behold, made all the more whimsical by the large whale on a school bus that Hopkins built that year. La Contessa‘s crew loved to “go whaling” that first year.

“The ship and the whale were the right size, and so it was like Moby Dick and the Pequod,” Hopkins said.

Those who sailed on La Contessa insist it was unique among the many art cars in Burning Man history. People were transported to another place, and many reported feeling like they were actually cutting through the high seas.

An artist’s concept drawing shows the elaborate design of <span style="font-style:normal">La Contessa</span>

Illustration By Greg Jones

Cheffins said, “It was about creation. It was about inspiration. The whole thing was a gift.”

“That’s what we heard a lot after the arson,” Jones said. “This was the thing that inspired [people] to come out to Burning Man.”

Stormy seas
A lore quickly grew around La Contessa—and the ship and crew developed something of an outlaw reputation. There were the repeated violations of the 5 mph speed limit and what looked to some like reckless driving as they pursued Hopkins’s white whale. There were people doing security who Cheffins says “were overzealous and got very rude.”

Some thought the Contessa crew members were elitists for excluding some people from the limited-capacity vessel and for making others remove their blinky lights while onboard.

There were minor violations that first year because, as Jones said, “we didn’t have time to read the rules for art cars.” And there were stories that La Contessa‘s crew insists never happened or were blown way out of proportion. But it was enough to convince Burning Man officials to tell the crew at the end of the 2003 event that it wasn’t welcome to return.

La Contessa remained at Grant Ranch during the 2004 event, which the Extra Action Marching Band skipped to tour Europe. Snook negotiated with Burning Man officials to allow La Contessa to return in 2005 as long as he retained control and did not let Cheffins, Jones or their cohorts drive.

The fact that there were inexperienced drivers at the wheel was likely a factor in what happened the Tuesday night of Burning Man 2005.

The crew had made arrangements to take a cruise outside the event’s perimeter and within 15 minutes crashed into a dune that had formed around some object, tearing a big gash in the hull and bending a wheel. The crew was instructed by Burning Man officials to leave it until the following day. When its owners returned, the sound system, tools, a telescope, and other items had been stolen.

It was a dispiriting blow for Extra Action and the rest of the La Contessa crew, one that played a role in the decision not to try to bring La Contessa back to the event last year.

"[Last year,] we didn’t take her out because of a lack of enthusiasm on our parts,” Jones said.

Yet they checked on La Contessa on their way to Burning Man and discovered that it had been looted again and the figurehead was gone.

Insult to injury
As mad as she was about the theft of the figurehead and as sad as she was about the fire, Maduro said she feels a sort of gratitude toward the thief. “Assuming we get it back, and it wasn’t the person who burned the ship down, then I actually owe this person a debt of gratitude.”

Particularly since the fire, Maduro just wants the figurehead back, no questions asked. At her request, the Bay Guardian agreed to serve as a neutral site where someone can drop it off without fear of prosecution. The San Francisco alternative newsweekly will return the figure to its rightful owners.

“I was really sad, and it surprised me how sad I was because it doesn’t belong to me personally,” Maduro said. “I just always thought we would have her.”

The mystery surrounding the figurehead grew after Burning Man employee Dave Pedroli, a.k.a. Super Dave, found a photo of it in someone’s living room on—before he knew about the fire and the theft.

“Right after the fire was reported, within a day, I put two and two together and talked with Snook,” Pedroli said, referring to his realization that the photo depicted the stolen figurehead. “Right after that I started to look for it.”

But it was gone and hasn’t been seen since.

“I couldn’t imagine someone walked into that space looking at all the time and attention that went into every detail and wanting to defile it,” Maduro said.

But in the world of Burning Man, where most art is temporal and eventually consumed by fire, it wasn’t the fact that La Contessa burned that bugs its creators and fans. It’s the fact that Stewart burned it.

“He still looked at La Contessa as a symbol of Burning Man, and he didn’t know it wasn’t really wanted at Burning Man anymore,” said Hopkins, who has heard around Gerlach that Stewart has been boasting of torching La Contessa.

“If it had burned with all of us around it, as a ceremony, it would have been OK,” Hopkins said.

That was a sentiment voiced by many who knew La Contessa. Jones said this was the ultimate insult. “If someone was going to burn it down, I wish it could be us.”