Angels of the apocalypse
What I learned about fire, people, and Burning Man as a minion of the Flaming Lotus Girls.
By Steven T. Jones
OUT ON THE tip of Hunters Point, the big industrial compound known as the Box Shop is ablaze with activity. It's May 18, and time for the regular Wednesday-evening meeting of the Flaming Lotus Girls. But nobody wants to sit still they're all too excited to finally be getting down to work.
For months it's been talk, talk, talk, as the group of Burning Man artists has tried to come to terms with its most ambitious creation ever. Now they're ready to start cutting the steel that has just arrived. Steve is driving the load into the shop on the forklift as Charlie for some reason clean shaven and wearing a linen coat, cream dress shirt, and black pants instead of his usual welding grubbies guides him.
The massive head of what will become Angel of the Apocalypse a gargantuan bird with fiery wings and a driftwood body has been erected in the shop, impressive even though it's only a cardboard model whose beak is drooping in half. Yeah, it's cool, Rebecca says, accepting the compliment about her baby from Sarah, "but the bad part is our beak has gone limp." The Flaming Lotus Girls bat around some impotence jokes then move on.
Mills and Lynn are tinkering with a solenoid valve on the propane system and dropping hints that they might be ready to poof some fire tonight. Steve is welding a base onto one of the first feather frames to come out of the jig. Nicola is playing "mistress of miscellaneous" tonight, setting up a T-shirt press for various Flaming Lotus Girls iron-ons (like the hazmat symbol with a lotus flower and "666" that I choose) and handing out the last batch of stickers.
"Even if the angel doesn't get made, we still have stickers," Rebecca says a bit ruefully.
"Whaddaya mean, if the angel doesn't get built?" says Colinne, the group's bookkeeper and mother hen. "Are you having a bad day?"
Despite what seems to my rookie eyes to be rapid progress, Rebecca tells me that she's worried and that we'll be lucky to be done by mid-August, when the angel needs to soar out to the Black Rock Desert. I take a few notes on her comments, but I'm also ready to get my hands dirty. Ever since I learned to use the new plasma cutter that Pouneh got a company to donate, I've literally been dreaming of using its powerful beam of energy to slice through the thick head steel like butter.
But first there are some things to discuss. "Come on, you fuckers," Colinne calls out, trying to assemble the group. Rebecca joins the chorus: "Don't try to pretend you're not a girl."
The meeting is quicker than usual, except for an extended drama over the feather designs that Kezia and Tasha are working on. Sarah says they've been cranking out wing frames: "Two to three people can do one in an hour. If you have more, it takes longer." The meeting breaks up, and the 15 or so Flaming Lotus Girls head off into their various subgroup projects as Charlie and Pouneh who is also unusually well-dressed leave for a friend's wedding. There's lots of work happening over the next couple of hours, but as it gets dark, everyone starts to drift out to where the flame-effects group is working in the yard.
Steve, the shop's elder welder, cautions that neither Charlie who co-owns the Box Shop in addition to being a Flaming Lotus Girl nor the shop neighbors are going to like it. But it's hard to stand between the girls and their fire.
The feather's long ambient flame is working fine, but something is wrong with the poofer. They tinker with it as we stand around talking, the anticipation building. Finally, they get it; Tamara does the countdown, pushes the button, and then, "pooooffffff!!!," a massive fireball mushrooms maybe 30 feet into the air.
"That's a pretty impressive poof," says John, as Charlie and Pouneh suddenly emerge from the darkness of the yard's entrance, back from the wedding. In a voice mixing irritation with amusement, he declares, "Half that poof would have been fine."
I. Fire and steel
People need a purpose, even San Franciscans leery of paths cut by nationalist, professional, or theological concerns. So we pursue projects political, social, or artistic sometimes just to see them done, so our time and passions have an outlet of our choosing, so we can be part of something bigger than ourselves.
A couple of dozen women and men, mostly from San Francisco, devote a large part of their lives to making fire art at the Box Shop. Collectively known as the Flaming Lotus Girls, they set out to build Angel of the Apocalypse this year, and I decided to spend eight months working closely with them to write this article.
Both of our creations will be prominently displayed for a week mine on the streets of San Francisco, theirs in the Black Rock Desert during Burning Man and then they'll be gone, cast into the past but hopefully not forgotten. The Flaming Lotus Girls, however, will endure as an artists' collective and a statement on the times in which we live.
Sociologically complex, the Flaming Lotus Girls are also quite simple. "At its heart, it's still a bunch of girls getting together to make things go boom," says Tamara Li, one of the half dozen original Flaming Lotus Girls who are still actively involved and a striking contributor to the group's sexy countercultural sizzle.
The Burning Man art world is mostly about fun people getting together to make cool shit, usually reaching beyond their current capabilities. Every Flaming Lotus Girl project involves some new effect they're not quite sure how to achieve (this year, it's a long kerosene drip line on the angel's fiery outer wings).
To many outsiders, it must seem a strange way to entertain yourself, showing up at a dingy industrial compound to fabricate odd shapes out of metal and watch balls of fire poof up into the night sky. Big poofs that get nice and horizontal and bounce a percussive wave of warmth through you, the kind that gives you a big dumb grin. Fire. Cool.
That's one of the main reasons they give me for becoming Flaming Lotus Girls. They're pyromaniacs. They just fucking love fire, particularly when set against a glorious desert sky. Although they also got a big kick out of poofing the freshly refurbished Hand of God in front of a crowded BART train at the Fire Arts Festival last month. Nothing creates fireballs more powerful than the Hand of God, which the Flaming Lotus Girls built for Burning Man in 2003 and which is now crated on a ship bound for the Robodoc Festival in Amsterdam.
But their main focus this year has been building Angel of the Apocalypse an interactive art space with a fire-breathing bird's head and driftwood body structure enclosed by flaming feathers so huge they "can tickle God," as Michael Prados quipped at the group's last Wednesday-night meeting in July.
At the time he said it, just 32 days before the angel would need to come to life, not one feather capable of the task was complete, unless the 9- to 12-foot inner feathers could also make God squirm. Two of the 8 inner feathers were done, and the rest were well under way, but with time ticking away and the pot of money growing smaller, the 16- to 20-foot outer feathers had just been scaled back in number from 10 to 8. Projects change.
Projects also change the people who work on them. I've watched that happen to many of the Flaming Lotus Girls and felt it happening to me, someone who's never been terribly handy and doesn't even own many tools. My project began as observation but evolved into participation that central edict of Burning Man. I started off as a journalist and became just another minion of the Flaming Lotus Girls made to work and clean; taught to weld, bend, and cut steel; convinced to accept their Mafia-like rule: Once you're in, you're in for life.
II. The holy trinity
I got my first peek into the Flaming Lotus Girls' world last year while helping my camp, Opulent Temple of Venus, build a huge steel DJ booth out at the Box Shop. The place was a busy hive of burners working on all kinds of crazy projects, but the Flaming Lotus Girls dominated the shop.
They were intense about what they did, and what they did was shape steel. And once they'd used hammers or oxyacetylene torches or their bodies to turn steel into their visions of the Seven Sisters, they played with fire. They created elaborate fuel systems from scratch, growing more gleeful as their fireballs got bigger and scarier.
I was fascinated by a group that seemed to epitomize the unique role that the Bay Area as the birthplace and center of the international fire arts scene plays in the Burning Man world. So when the Borg2 artist rebellion broke out last November en route to the 20th torching of the Man, and I decided to do a series of articles on this locally grown countercultural phenomenon (see www.sfbg.com/burningman), I knew the Flaming Lotus Girls had to be the centerpiece.
Unsure exactly what I had in mind, I mentioned the idea of following the project from beginning to end to Pouneh Mortazavi, a founding Flaming Lotus Girl who helped fill in my blanks and took the initiative in pitching the idea to the rest of the group, getting their approval, and telling me that I should be at their next meeting, on Jan. 18.
I did what Pouneh told me, as do most people who become the Flaming Lotus Girls' "minions," a label she coined for those who get drawn into working for the group. It's not a derogatory term, more of a descriptive one, or even an endearing label from a group that places such a high value on hard work. One evening we were watching a video of last year's Burning Man setup, and in it there was a scene of some random guy relentlessly pounding rebar into the playa during a dust storm. Seeing this, Pouneh fondly remembered, "He was a good minion."
Rebecca "Hotmetal" Anders, who designed Angel of the Apocalypse, later told me, "It's great to be Pouneh's minion because she tells you exactly what to do in no uncertain terms, and when it should be done." Even though Pouneh is a warm and likable person who doesn't come off as demanding, she always has something for you to do, and for reasons I still can't entirely figure out after eight months of watching her in action every week, it's almost impossible to resist her requests.
"Maybe it's the British accent," Colinne Hemrich speculated, calling Pouneh the best project manager she's ever known, a woman whose technical expertise in fire arts and "powers of Obtainium" are matched only by her uncanny ability to spark people to action.
The meeting was at the Outer Mission apartment shared by Pouneh, Rebecca, and Charlie Gadeken, who seems to float easily among his roles as Pouneh's boyfriend, co-owner of the Box Shop, and a Flaming Lotus Girl.
Rebecca is the third pillar of the triad on which the Flaming Lotus Girls now lean so heavily. A professional welder and semiprofessional singer, Rebecca decided to turn over an art project she designed to the group, which she finally joined in 2002 after warily watching them invade her CELLspace work area twice before. She's still the art director for the angel project, but it meant giving up control over the many decisions that would still need to be made because, as Rebecca told me, "We're so collaborative here, to the point of ridiculousness."
III. In the beginning ...
The angel project started slowly, mostly with menial tasks, planning for some events, and getting the shop ready for the chaos to come.
"Everyone spend ten minutes sorting nuts and bolts tonight," Pouneh told the group one evening, looking first at me and waiting for my nod of assent before turning her gaze to the next minion. Charlie chimed in, "If we can sort all our nuts and bolts, we can save hundreds of dollars."
We took stock of the tools and other equipment, which the Flaming Lotus Girls mark with pink paint or tape. Charlie showed me how it works one day, borrowing my lighter and walking me over to a shop cabinet as we talked about the group's powers of "Obtainium," an element important to cash-poor Burning Man artists. He found a role of pink tape and applied a strip to my lighter, thus appropriating it for the Flaming Lotus Girls. "That's how we got a third of our tools," he told me with a smile.
The routine changed March 9, the weekly meeting charged with a new excitement because the Flaming Lotus Girls had just learned that they were getting one of the biggest-ever Burning Man grants: $23,000, funding everything they asked for except stickers and fireworks, which they would find a way to pay for themselves.
Rebecca led the discussion, dividing the Angel of the Apocalypse project into four main areas: head ("a cool fire-spitting furnace"), body ("this awesome, bizarre, unknown thing"), wings (which will envelop a project that "is a place as much as a thing, maybe more of a place than a thing"), and systems ("its veins and nerves"). And to coordinate the groups and make sure the project moves forward, Rebecca and Charlie would be, as she said, "in charge of the logic."
At this early stage, it was just a core group of a dozen that would steadily grow over the coming months with new additions and visits by veterans until the Flaming Lotus Girls became bigger than they have ever been.
"It has evolved into this ridiculously huge thing from just a bunch of girls at CELLspace," said Tamara, who was office manager there as the group was being created (see "Behind the Flames" for the group's history).
Although the Flaming Lotus Girls were formed by Dave X, who is now the fire-safety coordinator for Burning Man, it has been a leaderless collective from the beginning, randomly drawing in women like Lynn Bryant, whose friend was dating Dave X that first year and invited her to the shop.
"So I just totally jumped in and stayed with it. I was really excited," said Lynn, who got pregnant in 2001 while they were building the Fire Garden and whose son would sleep in safe parts of the Box Shop while Mama worked on Mini-Mega Junior in 2002.
Now Tamara, Lynn, and veteran welder Steve Monahan who has worked on every Flaming Lotus Girls project but attended Burning Man for the first time last year have become these sort of elder statespersons, not as directly involved with Angel of the Apocalypse as the holy trinity or even many of the newbies, but still making important contributions, often by parachuting in to solve problems or be the voice of reason and experience.
IV. The melding of metals
Rebecca offered everybody welding lessons in the spring, encouraging rookies to attend at least two of the three consecutive weekend sessions she offered with Steve's help. But my first lesson was a private session with her March 12.
Her love of steel is infectious. I had never worked with metal, not even in a shop class growing up, but her descriptions resonated with me. Hook a negative charge to the objects you want to join or the steel table on which they rest. Hold the MIG welder close but not touching. Pull the trigger to activate the positive charge, creating a powerful arc of energy that melts the edges of your surfaces and the steel wire being fed by the welder, creating a puddle of molten steel protected from dust and other contamination by a heavy gas that the welder exhales as the steel cools back into solid form.
"It's an organic experience," Rebecca said, one in which you move slowly and patiently to create the perfect bead of new metal.
Rebecca confirmed my observation that the hardest part is trying to keep my hand and the welding wand poised in the right position as I nod my welding hood into position, plunging me into darkness until I pull the trigger and let the energy illuminate my work, which that day included making steel roses that we'd sell at the next week's fundraiser.
My mom used to solder stained glass pieces together when I was a kid, but Rebecca explained that welding is different from soldering in one important respect. The seam created by soldering is like glue, the weak spot desperately trying to hold different objects together. Welding melds the two surfaces, swirling their different properties together into an amalgam that is entirely new, making them stronger than what came before.
V. Ladies first
Tasha Berg is a strong woman physically and in spirit but not a forceful one. She smiles more than most people, has dreadlocks and arms covered in tattoos, and is prone to popping off funny, saucy one-liners, like when the first feather fired up and she said, "Oh, it made my nipples hard," or when the head group added two days to its schedule and she quipped, "Yay, head three times a week!"
She's grounded in the way that massage therapists often are. That's what she does for a living (she was named Best Massage Therapist in the Bay Guardian's recent Best of the Bay Readers' Poll), and it's what she was doing at a resort in Hawaii when she first met Charlie, Pouneh, and Dave X, who were there on vacation.
Tasha was excited to hear Charlie talk about Burning Man, which she'd heard about and was dying to attend. "I said, 'I wanna go to Burning Man! And he said, 'Honey, we are Burning Man.' "
And thus Tasha became a Flaming Lotus Girl, flying out to spend a few days at CELLspace working on the first project and then going with them to the playa. She moved to San Francisco six months later.
"It's always ladies first in the shop," Tasha told me one evening. "If a girl is taking a long time to cut something with a torch, that's OK. It's not about just getting it done. It doesn't matter if they're taking a long time."
It is an important but little-discussed philosophical underpinning of the group, a third or more of whom are men. And yet, despite the very macho nature of the industrial arts, the Flaming Lotus Girls retain a distinctly female energy. It is a safe, nurturing environment that encourages people to try new things and work through problems no matter what time pressures may be bearing down on the group.
Men, myself included, sometimes forget how overbearing we can be. On a Sunday in May, a small subgroup of us was cutting out steel sections of the head. I had recently learned to operate the plasma cutter and was anxious to try it out on the thick pieces of steel for the base of the head, so I blurted out a "Me, me, me" when Rebecca asked who wanted to cut first.
Another male newbie and I cut the steel while the women did some grinding and other tasks. Very tactfully, Rebecca approached me after a little while to ask about giving the girls a chance to cut. I immediately realized what I'd done, and quickly turned over the cutter and apologized to all for my transgression.
VI. Let there be light
All the planning and preparation turned into actual work with fire, steel, and wood just as daylight savings time began, giving the shop a cleaner and brighter feel during the evening gatherings. The people and the place were being transformed.
Soon a huge section of the yard was cleared for longtime Burning Man artist Pepe Orzan to build the Dreamer, a massive human head sunk down to its nose that event founder Larry Harvey had commissioned for prominent placement between the Man and the Temple, planning to surround it with Angel of the Apocalypse and other fire sculptures. Its expressive eyes seem to watch the Flaming Lotus Girls work.
Back in March, Rebecca had been feeling phat. "We have an obscene-sized grant to make this thing," she said. "It's just a huge amount, and I don't think we're going to have any problems." But now the budget was getting tighter; steel prices had shot up by 40 percent in just a couple of months. And that situation was made all the worse by the group's decision to buy stainless steel for the wings, which is more expensive and heavier than the mild steel they usually work with, but which doesn't turn into the rusty mess that some of the past projects have become. It was partly a decision made out of a desire for the angel's wings to endure and be available, like the Hand of God, for future shows.
"Once you start welding stainless," Steve told a skeptical Tamara one evening, trying to sound sexy, "you'll never go back."
One other stressor on Rebecca was also a blessing: There were a huge number of new Flaming Lotus Girls, drawn to the group through friends, last year's Fire Arts Festival, the fundraiser the group held in March, and just by the Flaming Lotus Girls' growing fame in the Burning Man world.
Subgroups starting meeting every day, and whenever the Flaming Lotus Girls decided they wanted to buy or do something that wasn't in the budget, everyone willingly volunteered their money or time.
"You get sucked in," Jordana Joseph, another rookie, told me one evening. "You give them your money, your time, anything they ask. They're the Flaming Lotus Girls."
The angel's body was starting to take shape in the yard as summer set in, the team led largely by an unlikely Flaming Lotus Girl, a 62-year-old rookie named James Stauffer, who stepped into a lead role after Colinne got into a car accident in March. He had worked on collectives in the forests of Oregon and Washington. Building a huge structure out of nothing but driftwood and bolts was "a chance to use the skills I had developed out in the forests."
When I first climbed onto the body, I was amazed at how strong it was, but to James and another rookie, Phil, who was working on the body, it was simple geometry. "It's a triangle," Phil deadpanned. Triangles are strong. James elaborated, "It's like a geodesic dome."
VII. Birth of an angel
As summer arrived, driftwood was tucked into every spare corner of the yard. The head design was done, and its steel was being cut. The shop rafters were being filled with feather frames. And the feathers were beginning to poof. But they still didn't have skins yet because of a lingering dispute over design that showed the inherent problems in making art not only by committee but by consensus.
Tasha was new to the art world but took to metalwork like a natural, and she decided this year that she wanted to help design the faces of the feathers. Kezia Zichichi wanted to work on that too; she'd gone to art school, had been going to Burning Man since the late 1990s, and had joined the group in 2001.
Back in April, Kezia had unveiled her feather designs, which she made with a series of stencils she said she'd fashioned from studying real feathers and working with positive and negative space. The problem, as some group members pointed out, was they didn't actually look like feathers. Tasha had her own design, simple and symmetrical. The dispute had simmered without ever quite getting resolved.
Much of the problem was legitimate creative differences. But some of it was personality driven because, as Kezia told me in late April, "I'm really intimidated by Tasha."
So others in the group Rebecca, Lynn, Tamara, Colinne tried to mediate the conflict while delicately tip-toeing around the sensibilities on both sides and assuring the rest of the group that this was a healthy and normal process. But frustrations were starting to bubble up, like when Kezia bristled at input from Tamara and said to others, "I don't know why she's picking on me."
By the May 18 meeting, the group had begun to conclude that a division of design labor was the answer: Tasha would design the inner feathers and Kezia would do the outer, both in consultation with the group. Later in the evening, Tamara was itching to get more involved in the project, at which point Rebecca asked her, "Where do you want more input?"
"Well, I don't want to input more drama," she replied.
But the feather design drama was winding down, at least in the group setting. At the June 15 meeting, Tasha announced that the patterns (which were being hand cut into long plastic banners) were almost done and that the cutting of the steel faces for the inner feathers would begin the next day.
While they smooth over interpersonal conflicts, the Flaming Lotus Girls like to create artistic and mechanical conflicts for themselves. That's part of the fun. For example, Rebecca didn't know exactly how we would be placing a gentle curve in the 3/16-inch steel to form a bird's head, but together we began the process of figuring it out on June 22, with occasional oversight from Steve.
"Where's your tangent?" he asked the two of us as we started to slip a long, skinny piece of steel into the hydraulic press.
"Tangent?" Rebecca replied, launching Steve into a lecture on geometry and physics and advising us to "count our clicks" so we knew how much each bend bent. Using the unwieldy machine, Rebecca and I spent more than two hours and considerable energy to put a jerky curve in the smallest piece. Clearly, we would need to find a better way.
The next week a half dozen of us puzzled through the problem. The bigger pieces of steel wouldn't even fit into the press. Could we use weight? Heat? Finally, Steve mentioned that he had a more portable hydraulic press. "Would it move that piece of steel if we put a proper die on the end?" Rebecca asked. Steve nodded quietly and said simply, "Yes."
So we searched the shop to find the pieces and parts we'd need: a chain, a long pipe, metal pieces to weld and cut into clamps. The idea was to bend the steel like an arrow-shooting bow, using the torch as needed to soften the steel at the bend point. Rebecca had Epona (Christine Shepherd) and me work on the clamps one way, but Steve shortly directed us to do it differently, telling us, "There's always shortcuts."
Steve definitely knew what he was doing, and Rebecca seemed OK with his approach, but I couldn't help thinking back to Tasha's philosophy of how the Flaming Lotus Girls work. There are always shortcuts, but it's not just about getting something done, a warning that was illustrated a few weeks later.
Rebecca, Matthew, and I were working on the head, adding greater bends here, lessening them there by jumping up and down on the curved, heated sections. The head was forming up within a pattern Rebecca had painted on the shop floor, labeling it "head space." Some slots had been cut into the metal, forming tabs we were going to bend in toward one another.
Rebecca used the torch to soften the base of one tab and had me pull it down by a chain, but even after I'd gotten fully inverted in a mountain climber position, pulling with all my might, it was barely budging. Steve saw what was happening, walked over with a big crescent wrench jammed into a pipe, stopped me, and easily used the tool to bend the tab into place.
A few minutes later, Rebecca was working on removing a pull point that had been welded onto another head section, when Steve approached, mumbling about how she didn't learn her lessons and brusquely using his tool with one hand to wrench the metal piece back and forth as she tried to steady the head section.
Finally the piece snapped off and the pipe smashed one of Rebecca's fingers against the steel. Steve apologized and tried to help, but Rebecca calmly waved him off, tended by others as she ran her hand under cold water. The injury wasn't too serious, but it seemed to illustrate some issues we'd discussed earlier about when male energy charged into the Flaming Lotus Girls world.
But she wasn't biting on this larger theme, twice saying only, "He was just going too fast."
Later, Rebecca said she prefers incrementalism to confrontation. And when it comes to the Flaming Lotus Girls, it's enough just to have men in an environment like this, content to help out and be known as "girls."
VIII. The grand diversion
Tamara had been traveling for a few weeks and returned to the Box Shop July 6 to find the Flaming Lotus Girls frantically preparing for the Fire Arts Festival at the Crucible in Oakland, at which they planned to show some past projects, including the Hand of God, Alcyone, Mini-Mega Junior, and some yet-to-be completed feathers from the angel.
"How many are we planning to bring to the festival?" she asked.
"At least two," Rebecca answered.
"And they need to be ready by Tuesday," Pouneh added.
"So," Rebecca said, turning to the rest of the group, "none of you are leaving."
"We have to do a feather binge every night and through the weekend," Pouneh said.
"I think it's too much," Tamara said.
Pouneh explained that the deal had already been cut and the contract signed with the Crucible, which was paying the Flaming Lotus Girls' costs.
"I'm sorry to be a bitch about it, but I haven't been around as much, and I'm a little horrified," Tamara said.
"But it's a good chance to get things ready," Pouneh offered.
Indeed, the Fire Arts Festival proved to be both a major motivator and a huge distraction. Kezia and Charlie had almost completely checked out from the angel project to pound and shape the Hand of God's copper skin until it appeared lifelike. And everyone had to interrupt their work schedules to set up, tend, and break down their festival exhibit.
But they were the hit of the festival. The Hand of God had grown long, golden fingernails just before the show, which seemed appropriate. And the complete group got their first taste of what it would be like to work together on the playa, getting everything working just right, each fire poofer connected to a pink control box with buttons that passersby could press, creating the interactivity that was a feature of all the Flaming Lotus Girls art.
"This has become the staple warm-up for Burning Man," Tasha said as we worked together. "I'm starting to get really excited."
Pouneh had me and another rookie minion, Chris, screw together some propane fittings called pig noses, which would connect to the propane tanks and fuel the feathers. They twisted in the vice grips, but we did our best to make them as tight as possible.
An Oakland fire marshal had inspected the whole setup in the afternoon, and everything looked OK to her. But the real test came in the evening when Dave X came by with a sensor that detected any flammable gases, a machine that let out a low buzz as it ran past our connections.
"The things you made are not tight enough," Pouneh told me in an instructional tone. I felt utterly incompetent, a sensation that had periodically plagued me throughout my work at the Box Shop.
"Every one of those pig tails has to be tightened," said Rebecca, as stressed-out as I'd seen her.
"Pig noses," Dave X corrected her gently. He didn't seem too concerned, overseeing the work as he played with the sensor, letting Tasha exhale on it to see how it groaned from the small amounts of methane contained in the air humans breathe out.
Cathy Lynch, who joined the Flaming Lotus Girls last year, saw that I seemed down and consoled me. She also felt like an idiot through much of her first year, and after getting carpal tunnel syndrome from drilling hundreds of holes in Alcyone, she wondered just what the hell she was doing.
But the feeling started to pass as she saw their creations lighting up the playa, and passed entirely once she got home and realized that she'd learned how to change out all the plugs in her house and take on other previously unthinkable tasks. She summed up her Flaming Lotus Girls experience with, "You make art, make fire, hang out with people who are cool, and get skills."
And when darkness finally fell and the pair of complete feathers were fired up, I began to understand what she meant. It was thrilling to see them come alive, more so than I expected. The whole thing glowed in evocative patterns, flames licking out of the corner of the cutouts to form new feathers of fire that danced against the night sky.
We just sat together and watched our creations and those around us the tornado of fire, the huge pendulum with four-way fire jets, the flaming tree organ waiting for the $75-per-head-gala crowd to emerge from dinner at the Crucible for their fire tour, gleefully poofing the feathers and smiling every time.
"We're going to have 20 of them dueling," Tasha told me as a feather spit a fireball into the sky. "You gotta think of it in context."
IX. Push to the playa
Rebecca looked a bit anguished when I arrived July 31 to work on the head. She was huddled with a small group debating what kind of burn platform to build under the body, which would be set ablaze amid a glorious fireworks display after the Man burned. Sheetrock was cheaper, but it might crack under the intense heat, and they knew more about working with steel.
"We're short on money, period, and we're looking at expensive purchases coming up, particularly if we have to buy more stainless," Rebecca said, noting that we still needed more steel for the beak and crest sections of the head.
The first frames for the longest feathers had just come out of the jig that week, and Caroline Mills and RosaAnna DeFilippis were using water to pressure test the long lines that would carry the kerosene which burns hotter and more erratically than propane with Pouneh insisting they be able to withstand 100 pounds per square inch of pressure even though they'll only run at 10 psi.
By evening they were fire testing the first long feathers, and the shop was buzzing with activity as burners raced to finish their various projects. But the test didn't go very well. The fuel wasn't moving steadily up the line. Was it some design problem? Vapor lock? They just didn't know.
During the Aug. 4 meeting, Mills and RosaAnna briefed the group on the status of the feathers. The smaller feathers were all done. "Yay!" the group said. "Unfortunately," RosaAnna said, "the outer feathers are not going as well."
The kerosene-fueled fire wasn't even staying lit. RosaAnna called around to several fire arts groups across the country, but none knew what to do although they were impressed that the Flaming Lotus Girls had the audacity to even try a 20-foot-long kerosene drip line.
"The problem is nobody has ever done this," RosaAnna said, conveying what she learned from her inquiries. "They said, 'You guys are the cutting edge, and once you figure it out, we'll copy it'.... But we're working on it really, really hard, and we will overcome."
The good news was Kezia had finished her feather designs by working with Rebecca on a computer and was frantically racing around the shop getting ready to cut. "A lot of the essence of what was there is still there," Kezia said, "but we just refined and simplified it."
Rebecca said she had something important to say, and everybody quieted down. She praised how well they were doing but warned of problems being caused by that success. She referred to some of the minor accidents that had occurred recently (including her own smashed finger) and cited the lesson her welding teacher once instilled in her about not "getting greedy" in the shop.
"We cannot let our speed and our progress get in the way of our safety," Rebecca told the Flaming Lotus Girls. "This is why I like working with a female-dominated group, because we all have a little bit of mom in us and we take care of each other.... Let's just check each other because it's all about love and about safety."
Burning Man seemed closer than ever, so Rebecca began instructing the new girls on the finer points of finding new minions on the playa. "Dress up in a really cute outfit, then stand with a heavy thing and go, 'Ugh, uh, oh,' " Rebecca said, playing the damsel in distress. "And then big guys will come by and say, 'Can I help you?' And then you say," she continued, switching into her assertive, minion-commanding voice, " 'Yes, move that over here and this over there....' "
Everyone laughed. Despite all the work still to be done, the mood was lightening and the excitement was building. It was a big week. KQED television would be at the Box Shop the next day, filming for a story about Burning Man. And the following day, Friday night, the Flaming Lotus Girls were holding a final open house to display the eight inner feathers and a couple of the big ones.
It was a low-key but first-rate party, drawing old friends, new admirers, and a range of other supporters, including Burning Man founder Larry Harvey. In anticipation of group photos for this article, they broke out their cute outfits, swigged beer, and celebrated their pending accomplishment, which they continued to tinker with during the party.
At one point while I was talking with Charlie, Mills came up to us, a giddy grin on her face. They had figured out how to overcome the vapor lock problem on the large feathers, which had been burning for more than a half hour now, leaving the Flaming Lotus Girls what would seem to be a clear path to the playa.
"It's working, man, it's working," she said, and we all came over to see.
My article is done, but I don't want to leave them. I want to keep helping the Flaming Lotus Girls transform fire and steel into art. Even though I have my own Burning Man camp to attend to, I'll help them until they leave for the desert Aug. 23 and will continue to out on the playa.
I started off in January as just a journalist working on a story. Then I became a minion. And now, as all these beautiful characters have told me over and over, I am one of them, in for life. I am a Flaming Lotus Girl.
E-mail Steven T. Jones, a.k.a. Scribe.