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A Paper/Book Artist at Burning Man

Click to see the image of a book burning

"Rocks smash scissors, scissors cut paper, paper wraps rock, but fire burns everything: paper, rocks and scissors." P. Thomas (2001)

In 1988 The International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAMPA) had a joint meeting with The Friends of the Dard Hunter Paper Museum (FDH) in Reno Nevada. I knew that some foreign members would want to see the Pacific Ocean, so offered to host a post conference meeting at my home in Santa Cruz. As part of the post conference we gathered on the beach, where I had assembled paper, sticks, string and tape for participants to use to create paper structures that we would burn, on a bonfire, that night. The sculptures were creative and beautiful, and burning them was one of the most powerful and magical events I have ever been a part of.

In 2001, I again lead another workshop to make paper structures and burn them, at the FDH meeting in Dalton, Massachusetts. As I pondered what we would do, I realized I wanted to give the event more content than just making something to burn. I knew there was a festival near Reno, Nevada, called "Burning Man" where artists who worked with the medium of fire gathered to display their art, so I signed up to go. Since information about this festival can be found at their web site, so I will not spend too much time trying to describe the event. It is held in a remote desert location, The camps are laid out like a clock from 10 pm to 3 am, perhaps a half mile in diameter, in seven concentric semi-circles of about 25,000 people in crazy creative individualistic theme decorated shelters. These semicircles opened to the desert and in the middle of everything were the art works and a 40 foot man, made of wood, neon lights and pyrotechnics that would be burned the last night of the festival.

Burning man is a village for a week. Huge and dense. Too much to see and experience in a week. All kinds of people come to burning man. Lots of under thirties, to dance, rave and drug; lots of old hippies to party and be naked in the sun and dust; lots of hard working people who want to cross dress, paint themselves blue and drive around in funny decorated art cars. There were artists who came and made art works to burn. There were pyros who just burned things for the pleasure of burning. Seeing someone or something interesting, you could stop and talk, and if you connected you would be friends for a moment, and then not see them again for the rest of the week, or you could stay and camp with them. Everyone brought too much of everything and shared it: water, alcohol, fire, food... It was supposed to be a money less society where you bartered for exchange, but I found it to be a place where everyone had too much stuff and so just gave the stuff away.

It was a place to survive. The elements were harsh. Dust blew everywhere. The sun made days too hot to sleep, too hot for anything. The nights were the time to wander and see the art. I interviewed all the artists I could locate. In that large a crowd, with no real organization finding things was problematic. Each artist I met had their own story about how they came to fire as the medium for their work. Here are some things I learned:

The most basic relationship that an artist can have with fire is raw power: creation and destruction. At the archetypal level, fire is both male and female. The female fire is a candle, the male fire a torch. Feminine fire art is about control, nurturing, male fire art is about release. The medium has a life of its own. Each fire has an individual personality. The fierceness of a bonfire and the gentle beauty of glowing embers evoke primal aesthetic responses. Everyone is intrigued by fire. But usually not art galleries or art expositions. Papermakers sometimes complain that people do not accepted paper as art. Think of fire. What city council would commission a burning sculpture for the center of their town, or show burning artwork in the local art museum.

Aesthetic content in an art work is created by layering aesthetic elements: a story, a color, a texture, a feeling. One of the most basic themes for fire art work is release, giving up something to god, giving something back to the universe. Another basic theme is creation and destruction, another is beginning and endings, another rebirth, as in the legend of the phoenix. Other themes used by fire artists are illumination and revelation: when the skin is burned away the structure shows; when the mystery is solved all things are easily understood. Fire art can also be about facing ones fears. Fire artists always must deal with the possibility of being burned, and have the need for courage as they attempt to control a wild, primal medium in their art work.

Many of the installations and art works really had no reason to burn, fire was not integral to the concept. But then lots of the people were not trying to create art works; they were really just "pyros" making things to burn. Some works were big, displaying the raw power of a big burn; the fire element with its roaring blast of heat and light. Others were smaller scale, where the viewer could be intimate with the flame. Being a paper artist, I had expected to find most fire artists working with wood and paper, but it turned out that many worked with metal and propane, with a fire that burned continuously. I met a group of artists at a camp called Carp Camp who were making metal sculptures with propane fire jets, so that they functioned like water fountains of flame. They mixed oxygen and other gasses into their flame with blowers to vary the intensity and color of the flame. The artists felt that these metal pieces have to succeed both when they are static, in the daylight, as well as when they burn.

One stunning piece was a large metal sculpture in the shape of a human heart. It was the size of a VW bus, made by welding together various sizes and thickness and types of metal, and had a raging wood fire inside which caused the different metals to spark and glow in different colors of red and orange, calling to my mind the metaphor of the flame in my heart.
Another artist, David Best, created a two and a half story, forty by sixty foot building out of sheet of plywood with tiny puzzle piece laser cut outs. This wood was light and airy lent incredible ambiance to the building, fashioned after an ornate oriental temple, which he called the mausoleum. Inside there was an alter and on the alter blocks of wood. visitors were instructed to write the name of loved ones who had taken their own lives on the blocks of wood and the names of loved ones who had made easy passages into death on the walls. This way when he burned the structure the ones who had died easy could help the others leave the earth. This was a very powerful piece both before and when it burned.

Conversation with these artist revealed that they often like working with the interplay between what is man made (and what can be controlled) and what is of nature and does what ever it will. One artist, Gerhard Schatz, noted that burning art acknowledges the transient nature of all art. In this medium the artist becomes responsible for the total cycle of their work: creation through destruction, there is no gallery or owner to make concessions to, only the limits of the medium. Schatz stated that one of his goals was to get the viewer involved physically, with the heat, with the flame, by making sculptures to walk through.

Paper and fire have a history together. In Asia paper was burned at funerals and was used in ceremony to connect the physical and spiritual worlds. Here in the west we have to create our own traditions. I went home filled with ideas and used them to create several workshops. In Dalton we made human size paper sculptures, but when they burned the fire was terrifying to the managers of the conference center, so in later workshops we made more intimate sculptures, with bamboo skewers for the structure, that could be burned in a fire place. I also began to explore making books to burn, and find that this is always a provocative act. I look forward to what will result from these experiments.

Peter Thomas, Santa Cruz: 2001 & 2006

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