The Festival of fire and Light gears up for round two at the Museum of Art & History
We found the seven-headed dragon we were looking for, which I'd promised a skeptical friend I could show her if she came along for the ride, tucked away in an industrial Westside warehouse called “Rowe Machinery.”
Banking on her reluctance to believe in the existence of a Santa Cruz-based, fire-breathing dragon with multiple heads, I wagered my companion a pint of beer.
The beast, named “The Dragons of Eden” and inspired by the mythological Greek monster Hydra, is, in fact, a bus-length mutant vehicle with a horizontal row of metallic serpentine heads extending out over its front. It was built by mechanical engineer and fire artist Lucy Hosking, who, outfitted in red flannel, an assortment of facial piercings, and spectacles resting on the ridge of her nose, was expecting us.
“Come on in,” Hosking says, standing in her workshop, surrounded by tools, welding equipment and other engineering projects.
“You can hang out in the belly of the beast,” she says, gesturing at the door to the Dragons car.
The Dragons of Eden was designed to rove the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where Burning Man takes place each summer, drawing upward of 60,000 people in recent years. The expansive alkali flats are a perfect venue for the huge, elaborate, LED-lit, fire-spitting art cars and other surreal installations that populate the annual festival.
Although many of Burning Man's visionaries and cutting-edge pyro-artists reside in Santa Cruz, there has, historically, been minimal opportunity for these creators to share their work in their hometown. This all changed last year with GLOW: The Festival of Fire and Light. The event was a collaboration between the Museum of Art & History (MAH) and a band of some of the county's most impressive fire and light artists, many of whom see Burning Man as the ultimate canvas for creative expression. The event allowed innovators like Hosking to show Santa Cruz what they can do.
Last year, those who attended GLOW will recall Hosking's awe-inspiring instrument “Satan's Calliope,” (pronounced Cal-io-pee), a fire-belching pipe organ mounted on a metallic golf cart, which Hosking plays using a cable-attached midi keyboard.
With flaming sculptures in Abbott Square, digital interactive activities, a rumbling symphony of flame-shooting drums—called “Pyrocussion”—and glow-in-the-dark dance performances on a corralled-off Cooper Street, last year’s festival was a hit. Despite an evening of rain, which required the museum to postpone the fire installations until the following night, the event attracted more than 4,000 people.
“It's finally becoming clear that, a) we're not terrorists, b) we're not going to burn your town down, and c) we're not going to hurt anybody.” —Lucy Hosking
The GLOW festival returns to the MAH for the second year on Friday, Oct. 18 with a night of fire arts, and Saturday, Oct. 19, for a night of light-emitting digital arts.
The museum worked closely last year, and again this year, with the Santa Cruz City Fire Department, reviewing the fire functions of art pieces with professionals, defining safety boundaries, and organizing an oversight team, says Stacey Marie Garcia, the director of community engagement for the MAH.
“My biggest concerns were that we didn't burn the building down, and nobody got hurt,” she says. “That didn't happen, and I was really happy about that.”
The weekend of the event was changed this year to take place in October instead of March. The aim is to decrease the likelihood of rain as well as take advantage of the darker evenings—the darker the night, the brighter the glow, says fire artists coordinator Steve Cooper, who first proposed the GLOW concept to MAH Executive Director Nina Simon in the summer of 2011.
Just in the past year, fire arts have become increasingly mainstream entertainment, says Cooper, who works as a product manager for an arts and animation-oriented software company.
“It's a good time for fire arts, where as just a year and a half ago, it was more on the sketchy side and harder for people to wrap their heads around,” he says.
The first GLOW festival was a big breakthrough locally, Cooper says.
Hosking explains that protocols for permits with the National Fire Protection Association for flame effects before live audiences have opened a lot of doors for local events.
The fire artists all adhere to the NFPA's 2011 “flame effects before an audience” code 160, which established a variety of safety standards, inspections, required equipment maintenance and qualifications.
“It's finally becoming clear that, a) we're not terrorists, b) we're not going to burn your town down, and c) we're not going to hurt anybody,” she says.
The decision for the MAH and the City of Santa Cruz to move forward with a second round of GLOW is a great endorsement for fire arts, Cooper says.
“Bonefire” Bob Hoffman and Ezra Manners, two of last year's local fire artists, will return. Manners will bring his flaming bull head, called “Vaca de Muerte Con Fuego,” and Hoffman will bring his spinning fire sculpture called “The Wishing Well,” as well as his fire torches known as “Bonefires,” which he describes as “light-weight personal, recreational flame throwers.”
Hoffman, the former owner of Tortilla Flats Mexican restaurant in Soquel, now works solely as a flame effects artist. He sells his Bonefire flamethrowers, which he builds using accumulators. Accumulators are the devices most of the artists participating in GLOW use for their fire-emitting installations. They allow liquid propane from a tank to accumulate as a vapor, and then be released as a roaring burst of flame when triggered.
As all Burning Man enthusiasts know, “The Man” (the large wooden effigy that gives the event its name), like many of the large-scale art installments on the playa, is burned to ashes as a kind of grand finale at the end of the festival in the desert.
In 2003, Hoffman had the great pleasure of providing the flamethrower that ignited The Man, he says. Since then, he’s helped incinerate a number of other memorable installations. In 2012, he lit up a giant three-letter structure spelling the word “EGO.” This year, he torched the Photo Chapel, a 40-foot tall gothic structure covered with people's powerful, emotionally charged photographs.
“I've been invited to light some big projects on fire,” he says.
Beyond the basic appeal of watching something big go up in vibrant flames, the tradition of burning the wooden figure has been a means of providing catharsis ever since the Burning Man gathering began in 1986 on San Francisco's Baker Beach.
“Fire has always cleansed and created things anew, such as in legends like the phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Cooper, who camps with “Illumination Village” each year in Black Rock City. “The initial roots [of Burning Man] were to burn away, and purge difficult memories, and doing it in a very meaningful way.”
Cooper says the friends he knows from Burning Man who are participating in GLOW express themselves through their artistic and mechanical creations, but hold on to that basic, traditional premise and hold a deep spiritual connection with fire as their art's medium.
“[Burning Man] is not just about rave culture, or doing drugs, or having friends in furry coats,” like some people may think, he says. “It's about the fire, seeing something beautiful, having it warm you on a cold night, and connecting with that dangerous, rough edge.”
But, just as at Burning Man, where LED lighting defines the night landscape, fire arts are just one half of the GLOW equation. The second night of the festival illuminates the cutting-edge world of digital lights and entertainment.
“The quality of the light art has definitely improved,” says Drew Detweiler, coordinator for the digital artists. “The last time we did this, we were just finding our way along. We didn't realize how much interest there would be in the festival.”
Detweiler says they anticipate even larger crowds this time now that the word on GLOW is out.
“We're kind of afraid of that,” he says of the potential masses.
This year, Detweiler and the MAH have invited a variety of new artists from San Francisco and San Jose, as well as some new Santa Cruz artists who have worked with light as a medium for decades.
For example, Paul Sable-Snibbe, of Capitola, will bring dozens of crystal-like, light-emitting sculptures. Artist Michele Guieu, from San Jose, will provide his installment “Species Encounter,” a large collaborative shadow-puppet piece. And San Francisco artists group Anticlockwise will set up their “Shatter Wall,” a large-scale, interactive art piece that projects a video wall that participants can throw pillows at and watch crumble to pieces.
A total of 36 fire artists and 45 digital artists are participating this year.
Detweiler's own contribution—a collaborative piece with Algeria-based artist Lyes Belhocine—is “Datasurf,” an interactive surfing simulator interface.
“You can see yourself inside a barrel when you achieve balance, and it moves as you lean,” he says.
Garcia says GLOW will feature more hands-on, participation-based art than last year. There will also be more space dedicated to digital art activities and displays throughout the second and third floors of the building, which weren’t as heavily incorporated into the exhibit last year.
Hosking's Dragons of Eden vehicle, a new addition to Friday's festival of fire, will open its doors on Cooper Street for people to climb inside and take the tour. However, it will not be spewing fire. Due to its formidable size, it just wouldn't be safe.
“I couldn't really do it without setting a tree on fire or putting a lot of soot on the buildings,” she says.
“Fire has always cleansed and created things anew, such as in legends like the phoenix rising from the ashes. The initial roots [of Burning Man] were to burn away, and purge difficult memories, and doing it in a very meaningful way.” —Steve Cooper, fire artists coordinator for GLOW
The Dragons car has been an ongoing project for more than a decade, and began with just the seven heads.
The first time the heads of The Dragons of Eden made it out to Burning Man, in 2002, they were mounted on Satan's Calliope like a hood ornament, she says. (Satan's Calliope will be returning to GLOW, this time right on Cooper Street rather than in Abbott Square.)
In 2006, a friend gifted Hosking a run-down Chevrolet P30 Motor Home, which today—though entirely unrecognizable as the vehicle it once was—is the long, silver body of the Dragons car.
The cockpit of the Dragons vehicle is a large globe, like something off a deep-sea submersible. The transparent sphere tilts backward toward the body of the vehicle at precisely a 23-degree angle, Hosking explains.
“That,” she states academically, “is the angle of inclination of the Earth's orbit. It's why we have seasons.”
She says the next phase for the vehicle will be to add a layer of skin and dragon arms that extend forward along the base of the chassis, reaching up and clutching the lower half of the cockpit-orb, with its claws piercing into the inside.
“So the dragon is traveling with the Earth clutched protectively to her breast,” Hosking says with a tone of reverence.
In regard to the aforementioned beer wager, my friend reminds me that I'd specified we would see a fire-breathing dragon. And although the beast won't be spewing flames at GLOW, Hosking proves that it is certainly capable of doing so.
Above the driver's seat, which feels more like that of a moon rover than an RV, there are a series of colorful sensors within Hosking's reach. She raises one hand over her head and places a palm in front of the first green light.
The sounds of valves whirring and heavy metal snapping open and closed ring out overhead. Hosking waves her hands across each of the sensor lights, and the jaws of seven dragons gnash like swords clashing together. More hand waving and orange fire bursts forth from the dragons' open mouths and nostrils, illuminating the floor and walls of the warehouse.
Hosking acquired a great deal of her welding skills while working as an avionics technician during the '70s and '80s, though she has enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together as far back as she can remember. When she was just 11, an affinity for combustibles was awakened in her by manufacturing her own homemade gunpowder and fireworks.
Today, Hosking says the thing that makes her work worthwhile is the opportunity to inspire creativity in others.
“The thing that addicts me to doing this above anything else, is the handful of people who have taken inspiration from something I've made—the same inspiration that I took from all the things I've seen [at Burning Man]—and, in turn, gone off and done grand, magnificent things,” she says. “That's been the best reward for me, to have touched people's lives like that.”
While the participating fire artists primarily share their work at Burning Man, Garcia hopes that, through GLOW, their art can reach and inspire those who don't make the journey out to the Black Rock Desert.
“It's wonderful for people who go,” Garcia says. “But I'm really interested in bringing that art into our community, and sharing it with a group of people who aren't going to Burning Man.”
GLOW: A Festival of Fire takes place from 7-10 p.m., Friday, Oct. 18.
GLOW: A Festival of Light takes place from 7-10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19.
TIX: $10 General, $5 for MAH Members each night. Advance tickets for both nights are $18 General, $8 for MAH members.
GLOW Workshops from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19. $40 plus materials fee.
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