"We all came to feel like servants at some point."
Meanwhile, Cheffins commissioned Extra Action dancer, event producer, and sculptor Maduro to build a figurehead that would be the most visible and defining artistic detail on the galleon. Cheffins conveyed his vision including the need for it to be removable so a live model could sit in her place and Maduro added her own research and artistic touches.
"We wanted her to be beautiful, sexy, strong, and also unique," Maduro told us.
All the ship figureheads that she researched had open eyes, except one that had one eye closed, purportedly the same eye in which the ship's captain was blind. That gave Maduro the idea of a figurehead with closed eyes.
"The figurehead is supposed to guide you through the night and see you to safety," she said. "We liked the idea that our figurehead would guide us blindly."
Maduro worked for six months in relative isolation from the ship site in Xian, artist Michael Christian's Oakland studio. The face was designed from a mold of their friend: model and actress Jessa Brie Berkner. The armature was wood and metal, covered in carved foam coated in fiberglass veils dipped in marine epoxy, with sculpting epoxy over that, and wearing a real fabric skirt dipped in epoxy. The idea was to make it strong enough to stand being dropped by people and battered by the elements.
"This is one of the most emotional projects I've ever been a part of," said Maduro, who spent six years creating lifelike exhibits for natural history museums across the country, among other projects. "It was a magical mix of all these individuals that made it happen."
Yet there wasn't enough magic to allow the shipbuilders to meet their schedule. They weren't where they'd hoped to be when the trucks arrived to haul La Contessa to the playa, requiring a final push on location under sometimes harsh conditions.
"The intention was to build the whole deck and reassemble it," Jones said. "But we ran out of time."
Instead, the crew spent the final weeks before Burning Man and most of their time at the event frantically trying to finish the project, completing it on a Friday night just a couple days before the event ended. Jones recalled, "We stained it Friday afternoon during a sandstorm."
Ah, but once it was finished, it was an amazing thing to behold, made all the more whimsical by the large whale on a school bus that Hopkins built that year. La Contessa's crew loved to "go whaling" that first year.
"The ship and the whale were the right size, and so it was like Moby Dick and the Pequod," Hopkins said.
Those who sailed on La Contessa insist it had a feel that was unique among the many art cars in Burning Man history. People were transported to another place, and many reported feeling like they were actually cutting through the high seas.
Cheffins said, "It was about creation. It was about inspiration. The whole thing was a gift."
"That's what we heard a lot after the arson," Jones said. "This was the thing that inspired [people] to come out to Burning Man."
A lore quickly grew around La Contessa and the ship and crew developed something of an outlaw reputation. There were the repeated violations of the 5 mph speed limit and what looked to some like reckless driving as they pursued Hopkins's white whale.