Burning Man: Phoenix Artists Take Gigantic Insects, Jack-In-The-Box Fetuses and Other Unique Art to the Desert

An overhead view of last year's Burning Man in Nevada.
An overhead view of last year's Burning Man in Nevada.
Shawn Vermillion

At this very moment, more than 60,000 people are gathered in the sun-drenched wastelands of Nevada engaging in a gonzo cultural event that's unlike any other event in the world. They're participating in the annual Burning Man, a weeklong celebration of art, music, fringe culture, and all things bizarre in midst of the Black Rock Desert.

One of the main attractions of the yearly event are the hundreds of gorgeously eccentric installations and sculptures - both large and small - that are constructed on the dusty playa where Burning Man is staged, creating a massive outdoor gallery filled with breathtaking and mind-bending art. 

Amongst this chaotic pastiche of art, color, and sound are several sculptures and vehicles built by Valley creatives who made the 18-hour-plus trek to Burning Man, which runs through Labor Day, including towering insect, a ginormous rabbit head on wheels, and a large Rastafarian-themed double-decker ride that is currently blasting reggae music throughout the event.

Heather Dessel and her praying mantis sculpture.
Heather Dessel and her praying mantis sculpture.
Benjamin Leatherman

It's no surprise why they, like thousands of other artists from across the world, spend months planning and building stunning and unforgettable work to bring to the event. According to Tempe artist and musician Ian Wender, a longtime Burning Man attendee, it's incomparable to anything else.

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"It's guaranteed that you'll never see art like this anywhere few other places in the world. There are so many things out there that will blow your mind with their size, complexity, and creativity," he says. "Sometimes it can be like sensory overload. Plus, you're in the middle of the desert far from regular civilization, which can add to the intensity of the event. There are artists locally who take months to make their art and prepare for Burning Man."

Heather Dessel is one such artist who spent most of the summer getting her sculpture ready for the event. The 26-year-old welder at Kornegay Fabrication in Gilbert has been busy over the past nine weeks constructing an 11-foot-tall preying mantis sculpture made from steel.

It's certainly an impressive and fearsome looking beast, which Dessel estimates cost approximately $2,500 to build. (Thankfully, her employers permitted her to use the company's computer-driven laser torch for free, albeit after business hours.) Like many other Burning Man art projects, she used Kickstarter to raise the money to purchase the raw material for the sculpture, which was inspired by the fact that Dessel "just really likes" mantises.

"It's always been a very noble creature to me," she says. "My company has done work at the Desert Botanical Garden and there's a mantis sculpture there that I really like and gave me an idea of what I should create."

Each Burning Man features a specific theme, and this year's is centered on fertility. As such, Dessel decorated her sculpture with small and intricate etchings of flowers and women blowing kisses. The front also features a sun-like image carved into the metal that resembles sperm approaching an egg.

Most of the art pieces at Burning Man tend to light up after the sun goes down (which is when most attendees pull some all-night ragers) and Dessel's creation is no different. She adorned the sculpture with strings of LED lights that will allow it to glow amidst. She also made the insect's thorax hollow and surrounded it with translucent fabric and pillows to create a place for her fellow attendees to chillax.

"I'm hoping if the light glowing inside is bright enough, you'll be able to see shapes of people moving about inside the thorax," she says.  

The "Movement of Jah People" art car.
The "Movement of Jah People" art car.

Dessel isn't the only local who made her Burning Man project a reality via Kickstarter. East Valley resident Ian Liljeblad drummed up $3,000 on the crowdfunding website for the "Movement of Jah People" art car, a double-decker automobile boasting an irie vibe.

The 39-year-old metal fabricator and a crew of eight others transformed a ramshackle 1978 Dodge motorhome into a two-story bus-like affair that is equipped with a DJ booth serving up reggae, dancehall, and other Jamaican jams at Burning Man.

"The goal [of the project] was to bring reggae music to the playa and build this art car as our gift to Burning Man," he stated in the YouTube video on the project's Kickstarter page.

Liljeblad and company also built a 12-foot-tall countenance of the Lion of Judah (a significant symbol in Rastafari culture) for the front of the art car, which is made from a metal lattice of interconnected Burning Man symbols. They also added a mess of illuminated dreadlocks and decorated the art car with Jamaican flags (natch). There are also plenty of other amenities for Burners who climb aboard for a ride.

"We've got a bathroom onboard, a refrigerator, a top deck, [and] we can carry 20-30 people onboard, hence the name, 'Movement of Jah People,'" Liljeblad says.

Burning Man: Phoenix Artists Take Gigantic Insects, Jack-In-The-Box Fetuses and Other Unique Art to the Desert


Corrine Vivers works on her Burning Man mixed-media piece Pop Goes the Baby
Corrine Vivers works on her Burning Man mixed-media piece Pop Goes the Baby
Angels of Purrrgatori

Valley artist Corrine Vivers had a far different take on the fertility theme for her Burning Man piece, creating a mixed media sculpture entitled Pop Goes the Baby that was inspired by an unusual experience during her childhood.

"A friend and I were talking about movies we used to watch when we were little and I mentioned how my little sister used to watch a live birth film like every day when we were growing up," Vivers says. "It started as a joke to commemorate the fact that my sister couldn't go to Burning Man by making my art piece represent that video she used to watch."

To recreate this memory, Vivers placed a dismembered upside-down fiberglass torso with an old jack-in-the-box nestled in the crotch inside hollowed-out vintage Zenith television.. She originally intended for a plaster fetus to shoot out of the salaciously placed child's toy, but the mechanism inside broke down when she was building it.

Since she spent "around 100 hours" working on Pop Goes the Baby, the artist decided to bring it to Burning Man, even if it didn't operate like she'd hoped.

"It's a funny story of how things can go wrong," Vivers jokes. "The project is done, it's just not as functional as I originally intended. You won't believe how hard it is to find a working jack in the box in the summer since it's a seasonal item that sells during the holidays."  

The Bunny Van
The Bunny Van
Courtesy of Mike Dinan

Longtime Burning Man attendee Mike Dinan didn't have to spend his summer conjuring up the perfect art car for the event, however, since he already had a four-wheel contraption that's perfectly suited for the theme of reproduction and fertility. Namely, his unusual-looking Bunny Van.

The 49-year-old Burner debuted his art car back in 2006 from a stripped-down cargo van, which he turned into a flatbed truck, covered with a fur-like fabric and attached rabbit ears measuring 13 feet long. Its been seen on MTV and occasionally makes appearances at First Friday.

Dinan, who typically wears a rabbit costume during the Burning Man, says that the Bunny Van is also perfect for the event because it's a "party on wheels."

"We've gotten as much as 45 people in the back and we take them on an art tours around the playa," he says. "People climb on, bring their drinks, and just have a good time."

The van is so popular at Burning Manpartiers, Dinan adds, that he and his friends often has to spend a few weeks cleaning it up after he returns to the Valley.

"We wash it every year when we get back not only to get all the playa dust, but also from all the beer that gets spilled on it," he says, "Especially when you try to get as many people on it as possible."

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