Enormous flame-breathing creations at Fire Arts Festival are prelude to Burning Man
Meredith May, Chronicle Staff Writer, Friday, July 13, 2007
In the shadow of the West Oakland BART Station, a 168-foot-long serpent breathed fire, flames rocketed out of swinging pendulums and Silicon Valley engineer Lucy Hosking drove a fire-breathing pipe organ, "Satan's Calliope."
More than 400 fire sculptors, dancers and musicians gathered for the seventh annual Fire Arts Festival, a fundraiser benefiting the industrial arts program at the Crucible. Many of artists who showcase at the festival are also test-firing the sculptures they plan to bring to the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert later this summer.
The centerpiece is an 11-act fire performance of Homer's "Odyssey," with aerial dancers, contortionists and 30-foot tall scrap-metal sculptures that shoot fire and water.
Crucible founder Michael Sturtz uses the proceeds from the Fire Arts Festival to provide free fire-art classes to the neighborhood young people -- kids like Anthony Bradley, 16, who busied himself at the Fire Arts Festival pressing buttons to control the propane jets on a writhing, 168-foot flaming snake called "Serpent Mother."
Bradley, who lives in the nearby Mandela Gateway subsidized housing complex, learned how to repair bicycles and use a torch-cutter at the Crucible.
"I want to be a bike mechanic now," he said.
Behind the fire and frivolity is a serious purpose, Sturtz said.
"We can't forget the why. The Fire Festival helps us breathe life back into the lost arts," Sturtz said. "We teach opera singers how to arc weld, ballet dancers how to eat fire, and Oakland kids how to be future stone carvers, blacksmiths or glassworkers."
Dann Das Mann and Karen Cusolito of San Francisco built four 30-foot-tall human forms out of scrap metal and cables to play the parts of Zeus, Athena, Aeolus and Poseidon in the "Odyssey" play. The figures are part of a group of nine similar sculptures they plan to bring to the playa at Burning Man this year. Each one weighs about 6 tons. They need to use a crane and a 53-foot trailer to move their art to the desert, making several trips.
The figures will worship a nine-story wooden oil derrick that will shoot a 1,000-foot flame gusher.
"We're asking the question -- what will happen to our convenient society of cars and power products when all the oil is gone?" Cusolito said.
Their passion has become their full-time work. The city of San Francisco commissioned their "Mother and Child" figures for the Embarcadero, and they just picked up another job building a fire-and-water tree in Australia.
"Burning Man is like art school for monumental artists," Dann Das Mann said. "The artists keep pushing each other to go bigger and bigger. Events like the Fire Festival and Burning Man give us a chance."
Mike Brown toured the Fire Festival with his 1-year-old baby on his shoulders.
"This is pretty cool for West Oakland," he said. "I had no idea all this kinda stuff was going on right down the street from my house."
About the event: The Crucible's Fire Arts Festival, including "The Fire Odyssey" performance, will continue from 7:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. today and Saturday at Kirkham and Seventh streets, near the West Oakland BART station. For tickets, call (415) 256-8499; for information, go to www.thecrucible.org/fireartsfestival.