Each year, in late August, about 80,000 people flock to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to take up temporary residency in what is known as Black Rock City: a pop-up destination 100 miles northeast of Reno. This is Burning Man, a monumental desert festival that’s been going on above board since 1991, during which participants not only practice self-expression and self-reliance but also make and show art. On the final day of the nine-day extravaganza, a giant wooden effigy is burned—along with some of the art, which may be burnt in the deep playa prior to the ceremony that gives the festival its name.
Those larger-than-life sculptures, art cars, installations and temples that remain as “Burners” pack up the makeshift city can present a pressing logistical issue for their creators. And yet, it’s not uncommon for artists and creatives to cart their playa-dust-covered creations home, according to long-time Burning Man artist Laura Kimpton, who says more pieces were burned at the festival twenty years ago than have been burned in recent years. According to one report, just 3.5% of the playa art was torched in 2022.
Incinerating Burning Man art can be an expression of non-attachment or act of emotional and spiritual release, but the reasons for not burning are often purely practical.
“When you have the art burning, you have to have people protecting the propane tanks and each other in four-hour shifts,” says Kimpton, whose burned works at Burning Man include one that spelled out EGO in 30-foot-high letters, using welded steel and plaster cast, which was part of her Monumental Word Series. “Back 18 years ago, there weren’t any big words out there in sculpture except for the Hollywood sign,” she tells me. “I was a projected-flame artist, propane going through steel. Very few are doing projected flame because it’s a dangerous thing.”
So, when sculptors do create large-scale art to outlast the festival, where to relocate the installations is an ongoing issue. One surprising destination for Burning Man art is a family-owned Santa Rosa, California winery in the Russian River Valley that happens to have a sculpture garden. Since 1994, Paradise Ridge Winery has exhibited sculpture art in Marijke’s Grove, a love tribute to 91-year-old founder Walter Byck’s late wife Marijke Hoenselaars, who died 16 years ago.
The winery’s 156 acres provide more than enough space, but it wasn’t until about a decade ago that the family began seriously hosting Burning Man installations. In partnership with the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation, the winery organized a two-year exhibit called The Spirit of the Man, which included several works created at Burning Man. David Best’s Temple of Remembrance—made entirely of steel and crafted in nearby Geyserville—was part of that show and never left. “We decided to purchase it,” Rene Byck, Walter’s son, tells me, noting that most of the winery’s artwork is for sale.
Best achieved international acclaim for the temples he creates for Burning Man that burn on the festival’s last night, but his work has also been exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. After the winery show wrapped, “we started getting approached by some of the sculptors about bringing their work here,” says Byck. “We started saying ‘yes’ to the pieces we liked.”
Burning Man’s large artworks end up in many places—from museums and art galleries to garages and storage units to public spaces and roadsides. Burning Man Project helps some artists find municipal or museum placements for sculptural works, and some pieces are bought by collectors. And then there’s the winery.
“If it’s not burned, leased or sold it needs to go somewhere,” says Byck. Having sculptural work at the winery “saves the artists a little bit of money because they don’t have to pay for storage.” Plus, having a year-round opportunity to show their art provides artists with additional exposure beyond the festival “There’s a better chance to sell it because people can see it,” says Byck.
This visibility is vital in more ways than one. Kimpton’s LOVE sculpture—built and installed with Jeff Schomberg, and situated at Paradise Ridge Winery—served as a beacon of hope during Northern California’s 2017 fires, which heavily impacted the winery. The work was later relocated to Sonoma Plaza in front of City Hall for a show (From Fire, Love Rises: Stories Shared from the Artist Community) commemorating the first anniversary of the wildfires.
“It was definitely a beautiful moment in a sad time,” says Kimpton, about the sculpture that never perished. “It was the light in a dark situation.”