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Burning Man temple rising in Petaluma (w/video)


A massive wooden temple is rising on an industrial lot in downtown Petaluma – being built with the express purpose of burning it down.

Sound unusual? Maybe, but only to a certain line of thought. If one thinks like a Burning Man festival participant, it makes perfect sense.

Bay Area artist David Best and his crew of about 100 volunteers are designing and constructing the Temple of Grace, a spiritual and sacred space for memorials, reflection, celebration and to commemorate life transitions at the weeklong festival that begins Aug. 25 in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

In the final public act of the alternative festival — the evening after the eponymous burning of the “The Man,” a large wooden effigy — the temple is set aflame and participants watch as ideas and memories expressed in the temple are “released.”

It is the eighth temple Best has designed and he is continuing a tradition he started in 2000 with its dedication to loved ones lost, specifically this year those lost to suicide.

“Burning Man embraces a lot of things the outside world doesn’t understand,” he said, “including suicide.”

He said at one festival, a man whose son had committed suicide approached him with a request: “Can you set him free?”

“In our society, what makes people think people who commit suicide aren’t free? Religion or some other bullshit?” Best posed.

He said the burning of the huge structure — designed, decorated and assembled by hand — is the most important part of the process, an individual and communal expression of liberation.

The festival, which began in 1986 with 20 people on a San Francisco beach, now draws more than 50,000 people to the desert with goals of creating a harmonious community, making art and freely expressing themselves in creative ways.

During the week, those entering the temple write their memorials and place tokens of their “transitions” on its walls. The entire structure is burned at the end of the festival in a tradition of releasing the memories, pain, heartache, wishes and dreams in the immolation of the makeshift city’s spiritual centerpiece.

Santa Rosa resident Jayne Rosenberg, who has been to the festival three times, left a message in the temple for her father, who’d recently passed away.

“Being in the temple is definitely a tender moment. To see all the expressions written on the walls is moving,” she said. “Burning Man is the museum of self-expression, where peace and love and community unfold. That’s what makes it so magical.”

In what might be described as a microcosm of Burning Man itself, workers are scurrying about the Petaluma work site, helping with whatever expertise they have. Some are journeyman carpenters and others are little old ladies who’ve never held a power tool.

Perhaps half a million pieces of wood are organized around the site, off East Washington Street near Baylis Street, in the shadow of Dairyman’s Feed’s silos.

Massive truss-like structures will become the ribs of an 86-foot-tall domed temple, designed in a sort of Southeast Asian style. The first of four 18-foot-tall, narrow archways stands upright, sunlight streaming through its intricate wooden cutout designs.

Eighty lighted wooden lanterns will lead the way to the temple, where the archways will become entry points into a 150-foot circle around the temple. Eight altars will surround the temple inside a low-walled courtyard. The temple will be driven to the desert in pieces and constructed there early next month.

Last week, Marrilee Ratcliffe of Texas and Erwin Ozoa from Sacramento helped sort through a pile of thousands of small plywood cutouts — scrap donated by a manufacturer who would have discarded them.

About 60 percent of the supplies are recycled, Best said. A Burning Man nonprofit fund and a Kickstarter campaign are accepting donations to fund the approximately $95,000 project.

What the wooden cutout pieces — perhaps a hundred different shapes of curved, angular or irregular forms — were to become wasn’t clear yet.

“We don’t know specifically,” said Ozoa, who spent the day working in Petaluma away from his job as a physician assistant. “Whatever they will be will be added to the temple...It’s evolving.”

Ratcliffe, a wood artist back home, said it’s inspiring to work with Best.

“We are all called to do it, and he’s got us in deep,” she said with a smile. “It’s amazing to know you’re creating this serene, intentional space, built…for a party of 70,000 people.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.