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Burning Man At The Smithsonian

Mischell Riley “Maya’s Mind” in Washington, DC 800 block of 17th Street NW - . - March 2018.
Photo: Jeff Song/Courtesy: Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mischell Riley “Maya’s Mind” in Washington, DC 800 block of 17th Street NW - . - March 2018.

Burning Man was born as a small gathering in the San Francisco Bay area in 1986.

Today, upwards of 70,000 people attend the annual festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert that is, in big part, a celebration of art.

And now, some of that Burning Man art has migrated east, to a rather unlikely spot in Washington, D.C. 

A new show at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is called “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.” The show spans an entire museum and some of the surrounding neighborhood- all on display through January 2019.

“Burning Man is an incredible experience. It is about coming together and it is about communal art making and that is what we really want to showcase and celebrate,” museum director Stephanie Stebich told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Stebich said the gallery closed for six weeks while most of the artwork was removed to make room for Burning Man art.

She said the Renwick is committed to the "art of crafting" and the "maker culture" in America, which is why art from Burning Man fits into the museum's mission.

Burning Man artists are usually outside of the mainstream and work in a counter-culture way, Stebich said.

They use a different scale because their canvas is the vast Nevada desert, which Stebich said, "invites you with that great horizon to think big." They also work in a more communal way pulling skills from a group of people to create art, and finally, the pieces have a kinetic quality often using music, lights, and interactivity to draw observers in.


Foldhaus Shrumen Lumen at the Rewnick Galley/Photo by Ron Blunt

Stebich said the pieces for the exhibit created special challenges because of their scale and interactivity. Most public art pieces are not displayed inside a museum but the gallery is allowing people to interact with the pieces and is displaying them along sidewalks and public places in the nation's capital.

The Renwick show also includes newly commissioned art from Burning Man artists. And part of the Nevada Museum of Art's "City of Dust" exhibition is also on display. 

Stebich and the museum's curator attended Burning Man last year to get a feel for the art and the event. She said she would encourage everyone to go but understands most people can't go.

“This is an opportunity where we’ve transported some of the creativity of Burning Man to a public institution," she said, "It is free to all and in the nation’s capital."

And for the record - none of the art is going to be burned. Burning Man got its name because organizers burn a large sculpture of a man at the end of the festival. 

So far, Stebich said the response from the public has been incredible.

“Easy to say that the exhibition has caught fire with the public and the press," she said.

"Golden Spike" by HYBYCOZO /Photo by Jeff Song

One of the works on display is Nevada-based artist Mischell Riley's sculpture “Maya’s Mind.”

The work was originally displayed at the 2017 Burning Man Festival. Shortly after the festival wrapped up, Riley received an email from the Renwick requesting the sculpture be part of the exhibit.

“I was overjoyed. And felt like something was happening that was bigger than myself and the event," Riley said, "This piece has taken on a life of its own.”

Riley received a grant from the Renwick to transport the sculpture from Nevada to Washington, D.C. but it didn't cover the whole cost. However, thanks to generous donations from Burning Man devotees or Burners as they are often called the massive sculpture was moved.

“I was able to raise the funds to get a specially designed truck with a covering to have her go clear across the United States,” Riley said.

Now, "Maya's Mind" is prominently on display on a street just down the block from The White House.

Riley said she has always been interested in monuments to women in history and creating more monuments for women who have changed history, which is why she created the sculpture in honor of writer and poet Maya Angelou.

“I thought Maya Angelou was a perfect peace symbol," she said, "A torch in the night to the political climate going on with who is being represented who is not.”

But like most art from Burning Man, the sculpture is huge. The bust rests on books that are six foot by nine foot and people can actually climb inside Maya's head where there is a quote from "Still I Rise."

“What I do with my artwork is I try to get inside the mind of people and have you stand inside the mind,” Riley said.

She hopes that "Maya's Mind" finds a home somewhere in the D.C. area, preferably near the Dr. Martin Luther King monument on the National Mall.

Mischell Riley’s sculpture, “Maya’s Mind” at Burning Man, August 2017/Photo: Darrell Ansted/Courtesy: Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mischell Riley, Carson City-based sculptor; Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.