By Russ Megowan
What do a flamethrower, glow-in-the-dark sneakers and a giant labyrinth have in common?
They are all housed at the Museum of Art and History on Front Street as part of the exhibit “Close to the Flame: In the Spirit of Burning Man.”
The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 3 at the Solari gallery, gives visitors a glimpse into the philosophy and art that keeps participants of the notorious desert festival returning year after year.
“So much of what we do at the museum has to do with preserving a tangible exhibit, but this exhibit has more to do with preserving an idea,” museum curator Susan Hillhouse said.
For Hillhouse, Burning Man is more than a just a hedonistic arts festival.
“People have their pre-conceived notions of who goes to Burning Man, and I think that finding that this was not the case was one of my favorite things about the festival,” she said. “I also really liked all the sharing. People would ask to show you something and then say that they made something just for you.”
Objects at the exhibit range from bracelets and necklaces to absurd art installations and intense fire shows. “Bonefire Bob” Hoffman, a Soquel resident and Burning Man artist, donated an assortment of “Bonefire” flamethrowers to the exhibit.
“In 2001, I brought my portable flamethrower to Burning Man that weighed 50 pounds, which was not fun,” he said. “After coming back, I thought that this is good. Michael Leeds, a friend of mine in Santa Cruz, gave me a smaller valve that was like a steel whistle valve and used it to make a smaller flamethrower that came to eventually become the bonfire flamethrower.”
At six pounds and capable of shooting a 15-foot flame of propane, the gift is much appreciated by fellow Burning Man participants.
“Seeing other people playing with fire was one reason I went to Burning Man,” Hoffman said. “I also grew up playing with matches and lighters, so it was a natural progression. I think we all have this place inside of us that likes to watch the fire. I call it ‘primal TV.’”
Another artist, Lucy Hosking, was also inspired by Burning Man to make art with fire.
“Seriously, when I got there, 20 minutes into my first walk, something planted the idea of Satan’s Caliope,” she said. “By the time I got back to camp, I had three-quarters of the design done in my head and spent the next two years working on it.”
Satan’s Caliope looks like a pretty metal sculpture, but functions as a unique instrument that consists of 17 pulse jets that play like an organ from a connected midi keyboard.
“We got a bunch of Harley mufflers pipes and the expansion chamber out of some old dirt bike parts to make a pulse jet just to delight people,” she said. “It’s this nasty, dangerous, obnoxious thing that turns red when you run it, makes a horrible noise. When you play it, it sounds like a truck wreck on Route 17 with a box of puppies on fire.”
Overall, Hosking seems happy with her calling as a fire aficionado.
“It seems that I’ve found my medium in fire. I’m getting rockstar credit for things I would’ve been spanked for as a kid.”
For many artists like Hoffman and Hosking, most of their art may not have been possible without the open community and environment that Burning Man provides.
“You can’t put art in a box and contain it to that definition,” Hillhouse said. “I think the Burning Man community opens up the definition of what art is and what it means to society. They help expand the definition of art, and is one of the best things about it.”
_Visit santacruzmah.org for more information._