The art of Tahoe at Burning Man

By Priya Hutner · 


Randy Gate’s 7-foot tall “Dreamsicle” on the Playa at last year’s Burning Man, described by the artist as “Penny Farthing meets Dr. Suess.” | Ben Lazar, · 

Burning Man has compelled artists and creators of every type to go beyond the limits of imagination. It seems only natural to explore the artists and culture of Burning Man from a local perspective and discover what is being created in Tahoe and Truckee.

Burning Man has fostered and inspired many people to do things they never thought possible without limitations. What comes up again and again in speaking with people about Burning Man is an overwhelming feeling of love, sense of community, and creative self-expression.

Every artist I met opened my heart and reminded me that each one of us has a gift to offer and that we can truly make a difference.

Inspired art
The first time I saw “Helga,” a beautiful Viking ship adorned with sparkling, colored lights, she was parked outside CoffeeBar. Her creator, Mark Bjornson, has been attending Burning Man for the last 10 years. Owner of Brown Chicken Log Works in Truckee, Bjornson is a master craftsman and creator of fine furniture of Norwegian descent. “Helga” was his first art car project based on a traditional Scandinavian Dragon Boat.


Fred Besch’s “Big Bike 2.5” at Burning Man, with Mark Bjornson’s Viking ship “Helga” in the background donned with a fire-breathing, metal chicken head. | Courtesy Fresh Besch · 

Bjornson aka “Chicken” created his art car from scraps. He began with an old Dodge Mini Van he cut up. He removed the fenders and unbolted the doors.

“It took more than 80 hours to create ‘Helga.’ ” he explains. Her mast towers 14-foot high and instead of a traditional dragon, “Helga’s” bow dons a fire-breathing, metal chicken head that artist Fred Besch and Blake Larsen helped create.

“ ‘Helga’ is always a work in progress, this year I added a Porta-Potty, a built in cooler and new speakers,” Bjornson says. “Helga” can accommodate 30 people to ride around the Playa.

“Suck,” another of Bjornson’s creations was his second mutant art vehicle created in 2013. The giant vacuum cleaner was inspired by a photo of a lone man with a broom sweeping the Playa. The body is on old Chevy van covered in pieces of white polycarbonate and is illuminated from underneath with LED blue lights. Sponsored by Alpenglow Cleaners, “Suck” has been a highlight of the Truckee Fourth of July Parade.

What’s next for Bjornson? Meet “Magnus” who will eventually become a 50-foot cassette tape deck. “Magnus” is an Osh Kosh MK 48 Military Vehicle inspired by Mad Max movies that people will be able to dance and play on at next year’s Burning Man.

The curious inventor
Local artist Fred Besch is wildly passionate about kinetic bike sculptures.

“When I returned from Burning Man the first time, I was inspired by the diversity of creativity. Then, I saw a kinetic peddle sculpture at Safeway. I am interested in how things work. So, I set out to build one,” explains Besch, a landscape contractor and owner of Earthworks in Truckee. “I love all things mechanical.”


Local artist Fred Besch riding one of his kinetic bike sculptures on the Playa. | Courtesy Fred Besch · 

A curious inventor, his first project was a tandem bike he named “Big Bike.” With 4-foot wheels, “Big Bike” stands 7-feet tall. The following year, Besch decided to cut his tandem bike down and renamed it “Big Bike 2.0.”

In 2011, Besch created “Tron,” a single-pedal, tandem bike that is driven by one person and has a second seat for a passenger. “Tron” rides on 2-foot wide tires that light up at night.

“Building this stuff is what I dream about,” he said. “Lloyd Johnson and Neil Wangsgard are both very talented artists who have supported me along the way. Lloyd has generously offered me a space to work on the sculptures.”

“Iron Horse,” Besch’s third art creation was built in 2014.

“It’s a three-wheeled bike, with two wheels in the front and one wheel in the back and all the tires are 2-feet wide like ‘Tron.’ ”

All three kinetic bike sculptures will be heading out to Burning Man this year, and “Tron” is currently being upgraded with new lighting and bodywork. “ ‘Tron’ is getting a frame up restoration,” he said. And, he says that he’s already thinking about his next project, in which he envisions a giant mono wheel creation.

A blooming artist

“Fred Besch inspired me and empowered me to start drawing what I would like to create,” said Randall Gates. “Fred told me if you can draw it, you can build it.”

This led Gates on a 9-month journey to create the 7-foot tall “Dreamsicle,” which he explains is like Penny Farthing meets Dr. Seuss that debuted on the Playa last year.


“Burning Man has been the most life-changing thing I’ve ever done. I’ve learned that there is nothing holding me back. It taught me I can build anything; I can do anything, and I go anywhere. It’s been a liberating experience. And, I am not afraid to call myself an artist anymore,” he says.

“Dreamsicle” continues to evolve. This year, Gates is adding a fire element to his creation.


Randy Gates at work on this year’s version of “Dreamsicle,” which will feature six circular flaming spheres on the spokes of the bike. | Priya Hutner · 

“I’ll be adding six circular flaming spheres on the spokes of the bike, it will be like a giant, flaming Ferris Wheel,” Gates says. “I continue to return to Burning Man because it is the most amazing community in the universe, you see 60,000 people being themselves and expressing who they are.”

In addition to “Dreamsicle,” Gates is working on a second art project, a flaming parasol for his girlfriend, Jodi Hubbell.


“Dreamsicle” on the Playa | Courtesy Randy Gates · 

New Yorker’s art grows in Tahoe
“The Life Cube Project” also found its creative roots in Tahoe, virtually by mistake. Artist and New Yorker Scott Cohen aka “Skeeter” had numerous friends urge him to go to his first Burning Man. He went alone and it was that first time he decided he wanted to create something for the Playa. The following year, “The Life Cube” was born.

Cohen needed a placeto stay and work on the project, and he found a place to rent and spoke to the couple offering a room. They, too, were heading to Burning Man and invited him to stay with them. He had no idea that the home was in North Lake Tahoe and not as close to Black Rock City as he thought.

“It’s funny how a mistake like that can turn out to be the biggest thing possible,” he said, “That first year the ‘Life Cube’ was an 8-by-8-foot box with a slot in it where people could drop in their dreams, goals wishes and aspirations.”

“The Life Cube” has evolved over the years and has been a Tahoe-based project for much of its life. This year the “Cube” is a three-story structure and a major art installation is being created at the Trolley Yard in South Lake Tahoe.

“The first year a handful of people came out to see it burn. Last year, 10,000 people came out to watch the Life Cube burn,” Cohen explained.

“The project is very inspirational. People can write on it and leave messages. It’s an interactive piece for everyone,” said Tahoe City’s Mia Cimarrusti, who has volunteered with “The Life Cube” for the last three years.

In its fifth year at the Playa, the “Cube” has grown and has a team of 50 people working on the project. It will be located 1,500 feet from “The Man.”

Generating an art community
Another impressive art installation heading to the Playa is “The Mazu Temple” being created at The Generator in Reno. I went with Monique Monteverde to meet project manager Nathan Parker, art director Charlie Nguyen and architect Chris “Kiwi” Hankins (2011 Temple of Transition) who have been working round the clock to finish the temple to Mazu, the Chinese Goddess of the Sea.

The project was initiated by a group of Taiwanese from the Dream Community who enlisted Parker’s help with the project. The octagonal temple has eight sections each inscribed with the eight trigrams of the Bagua of the I-Ching. At the top of the structure rests a lotus flower with 24 petals, surrounding the temple are 108 lanterns that represent the beads on a mala (similar to a rosary bead), and eight metal, fire-breathing dragons designed by Eric Peralta. The main structure hosts a 150-foot footprint and is 42-feet tall and 50 feet in diameter.

Visitors may enter the temple and ask the Goddess Mazu for guidance. It is here they can find a bowl filled with Moonsticks that are crescent-shaped pieces that one throws like dice to receive an answer to questions. The Moonsticks will be connected to a bluetooth system, which will trigger a response to questions with fire, lights and other surprises. Another element to the project is the Qiu Qian sticks, where visitors pull a stick asking for direction in life and it will direct them to a different place on the Playa to find the answer to the question.

A group of 40 people from the Dream Community who’ve never been to the U.S. will fly from Taiwan to Reno, Nev., and be deposited in Black Rock City for Burning Man.


“The Flaming Fool” by Rex “Killbuck” Norman, the artist and creator of the Bannerline Project. | Priya Hutner · 

Each step deeper into The Generator, I was amazed by projects of all types being created. I walked by Tim Kelly, who sat next to a vehicle called “The Babe,” an open-air RV decorated in this year’s Burning Man theme, “Carnival of Mirrors.”

“The Babe is designed to help physically challenged people get around the Playa,” he explained.

And, then there is Rex “Killbuck” Norman, the artist and creator of the Bannerline Project. He was finishing up large banners that were designed like old-style carnival sideshow posters and banners dating back to the late 1920s. Thirty-two banners serve as the main base that will surround “The Man” and four additional banners will be inside; each banner is 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide.


Matt Shultz, founder of The Generator in Reno, at work on a clay model of a humpback whale for next year’s art installation at Burning Man. | Priya Hutner ·

Monteverde and I took a moment to meet with the founder of the Generator, Matt Schultz. He was upstairs working on a clay model of a Humpback Whale for next year’s art installation.

“Art inspires, it heals the mind and compels ideas forward,” Schultz said. “Large-scale art is like a performance, a ballet or an orchestra – it isn’t about one person alone sequestered away. Art allows us to communicate ideas we don’t always have words for or there are too many words; art is less verbose. And, great art evokes a response greater then words. It’s viscerally and inherently unspoken.”

As I watched Schultz carve into the clay, I thought about the Humpback Whale, the state of our planet, the trash floating in the ocean and people coming together through art.

Tickets are sold out for this year’s Burning Man, but will go on sale in early 2016 for next year’s festival. For more information, visit For more information on the Life Cube Project, visit, and go to for more information on The Generator.

Priya Hutner
Priya Hutner is a writer, personal chef and meditation teacher. She writes feature articles about music, art, food and recreation. Priya loves to immerse in story. Whether jumping from a plane, eating obscure foods or hitting the Tahoe-Reno music scene, she is always up for adventure and experience. Having moved to the mountains from Sebastian, Fla., she embraces the Tahoe lifestyle and loves to ski, hike, paddle and swim. Priya is the owner of the Seasoned Sage, a business that prepares organic meals and facilitates workshops that promote a health-conscious lifestyle. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience living on an ashram and working on a series of cookbooks. |