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Photographer and Burning Man artist Michael Garlington didn't possess a towering ego mere months ago. Today, it barely fits inside a Petaluma warehouse.

Garlington and a partner have built a bold, garish and golden sculpture that spells out in separate, 20-foot-tall block letters: EGO. They'll truck it next month to the Nevada desert's Burning Man festival, where 60,000 free if dusty spirits will behold it and then watch "EGO" burn.

"We've been slaving away for six months on this Tower of Babel," said Garlington, 35, a 1994 graduate of Petaluma High.

The most labor intensive aspect of the outsized art project has involved covering virtually every inch of the surface of the three letters with hand-molded curios.

Garlington and Jonny Hirschmugl, the endeavor's structural engineer, created molds of many figures and objects they picked up at a trophy shop, the county landfill's recycling yard and elsewhere. The poured plaster of Paris into the molds and made about 4,000 reproductions of horses, ballplayers, cheerleaders and such from trophies and also praying hands, tiny busts of President John F. Kennedy, old medicine bottles, clowns, guns, crosses, skulls, ravens, quail, babies and Buddhas.

Then the pair sprayed the plaster baubles with gold paint and attached them to the wooden frames of the great E, G and O with about 25,000 screws. The letters will be dismantled into sections and trucked to Nevada on Aug. 16, 11 days before Burning Man 2012 opens.

Garlington and Hirschmugl concede it's a mind-bender to imagine that late on Sept. 1, the same night the festival reaches a crescendo with the torching of a 40-foot wooden male figure at the center of the temporary city northeast of Reno, their creation also will be destroyed by fire.

"Talk about art for art's sake," Garlington said.

It delights him and Hirschmugl, 30, that the thousands of non-flammable plaster adornments will survive the artistic inferno. When the ashes of the wooden frame cool, they and collaborator Laura Kimpton, a Marin County artist and former Sonoma Valley resident, will invite "Burners" to pick up and take home a plaster relic.

It was Garlington's idea to cover the artwork with bric-a-brac that would survive the flames. But the vision for a large sculpture spelling EGO sprang from Kimpton, a daughter of Bill Kimpton, late chairman of Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group.

Laura Kimpton has in past years contributed several sculptures to Burning Man, the weeklong celebration of art and self-reliance that was born on San Francisco's Baker Beach in 1986 and moved to Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada in 1991. One piece she created spelled OINK, another MOM.

Santa Rosa's hilltop Paradise Ridge Winery is hosting a year-long exhibit, "The Spirit of Man," that features several non-flammable sculptures displayed in the recent past at Burning Man. An entry by Kimpton and her husband, Jeff Schomberg, consists of four large steel letters that spell LOVE.

LOVE may last forever, but Kimpton's new collaboration with Garlington will collapse ablaze in five weeks. Despite that certainty, Garlington hopes that before the torching, Burning Man participants won't risk damaging the plaster pieces by climbing on the letters.

He said he and Hirschmugl will post signs alongside them that caution, "This EGO is as fragile as your own."

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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