Montclair woman helps relocate Burning Man art near Point San Pablo
By Lou Fancher
The cyclonic creativity and mind-blowing, interactive art of Burning Man, the annual festival that appears and vanishes a week later in a temporary city built in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert has found new life in the East Bay.
Admittedly on a far smaller scale than the Nevada event that attracted more than 70,000 people prepandemic, five large-scale artworks from the festival have been moved to a sculpture park at Point San Pablo Harbor, a boat harbor at the San Pablo Marina north of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Illuminated at night or by sunlight during the day, the giant sculptures include two works by Burning Man nobility: Kate Raudenbush’s “Future’s Past,” a 2010 Burning Man commission that appeared in the Smithsonian’s 2018 exhibit of Burning Man art; and Berkeley-based Michael Christian’s “Asterpod.”
There’s also a 40-foot long crocodile, two cats that purr and a hugely tactile bee,” says longtime Burning Man attendee, or “burner,” Candace Locklear. The Montclair resident and founder/owner of San Francisco-based PR firm Mighty says she learned about Burning Man immediately upon her arrival to the area in 1996. “The cab driver who picked me up from the airport with all my bikes and gear told me about Burning Man. She said it was a big festival in the desert and the art was burned to the ground and it was chaotic. You could camp with a lot of other free spirits. That pulled me in.”
“Pulled in” during subsequent years has meant Locklear has walked topless across the “playa” (the dry lakebed that is the Black Rock Desert) and felt liberated, despite a history as a “plus-sized girl with big breasts who lacked body pride.” She has brazenly encountered at close proximity “big, loud, explosive, dangerous and scary artwork—often displayed without yellow caution tape.” At her inaugural experience in 1997 she designed “Motel 666” signage for her camp that riffed on the actual Motel 6 logo; the idea inspired by that year’s “satanic-vibe Helco” theme of a large company buying and overtaking the festival.
Struck by the no-home plight of super-sized artwork at the end of each festival, Locklear co-founded the nonprofit We Are From Dust with London-based film producer Yomi Ayeni. The organization worked with Point San Pablo Harbor’s co-owner, Rob Fyfe, to bring Burning Man art to the harbor’s sculpture park and is dedicated to introducing interactive, participatory and transformative artwork into public spaces and private exhibitions. Born and raised in North Carolina, Locklear wasn’t a particularly crafty, artsy kid growing up and can’t entirely explain being captivated by Burning Man.
“At summer camps I made lanyards and Shrinky Dinks—those paint-by-number things made on plastic that shrink in the oven and become like medallions. But I was more of a dancer and a mover.”
Public art to Locklear meant statues of men on horses. “It was Confederate blue bloods mostly,” she says. “We weren’t exposed to the horrific history of it all. Thanks to being in Oakland where there are more people of color to learn from and recently, exposed by Black Lives Matter to more real American history, awareness has come.”
Locklear heralds signs of increasing diversity throughout the art world — including at Burning Man, which at times has received criticism for a lack of equity.
“In addition to more art made by people of color being sought, there are NAACP and Black Burner Project camps that are safe spaces where people of color know they have community. There are initiatives reaching out to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities and reduced ticket prices for low-income people so that isn’t a barrier.”
Simultaneously, Burning Man has been elevated in the elite art world due to recent exhibits at major arts and culture institutions — including the Smithsonian and, when the exhibit traveled in 2019, to Cincinnati Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California. In September, Sotheby’s auction house springboarded Burning Man’s annual fundraiser into a global event. “Boundless Space … the Possibilities of Burning Man” was an in-person and online charitable auction featuring artwork from 22 countries including sculptures, paintings, one-off experiences hosted by artists or members, mutant vehicles, non-fungible tokens and other collectibles.
Having attended Sotheby’s live auction in New York, Locklear says, “It put the art on a whole new level, with new credibility within the elite art community. It’s raising the value of the art so artists will be getting paid more. Many artists did extremely well, with pieces selling for above the list. The artist gets 55%, which is better than most galleries offer.”
Big, chunky and exciting artwork sold well, said Locklear, who adds that Burning Man art in the past was “pooped on, derided as junk in the desert, not meant for the public eye.” In recent years, she says it’s widely recognized that Burning Man has launched careers for notable artists and became “a place to see and be seen.”
Demand for public art in civic spaces has increased during the pandemic, according to industry experts, supporting data and Locklear.
“It brings actual beauty to a city, It’s outside, free, family-friendly and provides connection where you can talk with people about what you’re seeing. Because of Instagram, people line up to take pictures with the art. That’s free marketing for hotels and local businesses.”
Circling back to the organization’s future plans and the sculpture park, Locklear says artwork like “Bee or Not to Bee” by artists Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson is a strong possibility.
“It’s a big, fuzzy bumblebee that’s tactile, with broom bristles embedded in the body. Just rubbing its belly is fun.” And public art in Montclair? “I’d love to see a big sculpture in the park that kids could climb on. It would probably be an animal, maybe a cat like the cat at the harbor that purrs when you touch it and is engaging.”