The mystery of La Contessa - Page 4

A galleon destroyed by fire. A priceless missing statue. Welcome to one of the great mysteries of the San Francisco underground.

"In our eyes, it was a piece of junk."

But Ragi Dindial, an attorney working with the La Contessa crew, said that this "junk" was actually a valuable artwork and that he is working on filing a claim with Stewart's insurance company, alleging the fire was a result of Stewart's negligence. If that doesn't work, he may file a civil lawsuit.

And then there's the lingering question of the sculpture, which survived the fire because of the theft — but still hasn't seen the light of day. "It's one of the greatest mysteries in the San Francisco underground," longtime Burning Man artist Flash Hopkins said. "Where is the figurehead?"


La Contessa's massive scale has created problems since the beginning, when Cheffins had the idea in 2002 of rejuvenating Burning Man and his own enthusiasm for it by building a Spanish galleon. It was a huge undertaking that created logistical nightmares.

"It was such an ambitious and, I think, exciting idea.... I wanted to do something fairly splashy, and the idea of a ship had always been powerful," Cheffins told the Guardian recently. "I was strong on the fantasy-imagination side of things and stupid enough to want to do it. Luckily, my ass was saved by Greg Jones."

Jones, a mechanical design engineer, had been playing trumpet in Extra Action for a few months when Cheffins pitched the La Contessa project at one of the band's rehearsals.

"I said, 'Who's going to design it?' " Jones told the Guardian, describing the moment when he took on the project of a lifetime. "That first night I had in my mind a way to do it.... For me, it was a challenge of how do you make it and how do you get it out there."

Hopkins said there should have been another consideration: "You have to build something that you can take apart. Sadly, that was part of its demise."

But that doesn't take away from what he said was one of the best art projects in the event's history: "What those guys did when they built that ship was incredible because of the detail of it. It was an incredible feat."

The idea of a ship fit in beautifully with Burning Man's theme that year, the Floating World, so Black Rock LLC awarded Cheffins, Jones, and their crew a $15,000 grant, which would ultimately cover about half the project's costs, even with the hundreds of volunteer person-hours that would be poured into it.

Cheffins researched galleons, learned to do riggings as a volunteer at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, directed the project, and insisted on materials and details that would make La Contessa authentic. Jones translated that vision into reality by creating computer-aided architectural designs for the ship's steel skeleton, a hull that would hang from that skeleton and be supported by an axle and hidden wheels separate from those of the bus, and the decks that would support dozens of passengers and hide the bus and frame — all with modular designs that could be broken down for transport to Nevada on two flatbed trucks.

"In the beginning I thought they were crazy," said Snook, an artist and Burning Man employee who worked on the project and later took control of La Contessa after the Extra Action folks ran afoul of festival organizers in 2003 for repeatedly driving too fast and breaking other rules.

The ship was built mostly at the Monkey Ranch art space in Oakland and a nearby lot the crew leased for three months. "My mom even helped," Jones said; she joined nearly 100 volunteers who pitched in, many of whom brought key skills and expertise that helped bring the project to fruition.

"The idea of the ship is it was a lady that you end up serving, and she took on a life of her own," Cheffins said.