Playing With Fire

Burning Man pioneer joins other local artists to present ‘A Festival of Fire and Light’ at the MAH
Spend an hour talking with local fire sculpture artist Lucy Hosking, and you’ll be inundated with stories about a childhood obsession with electronics and mechanics, making gunpowder as a teenager, working as a sound engineer for the Black Mafia in Philadelphia during young adulthood, and more recently, pioneering Burning Man.

A small sample of Burning Man culture—including Hosking’s well-known creative fire sculptures—will be exhibited at “GLOW: A Festival of Fire and Light,” on March 16 at the Museum of Art & History. The event will celebrate light, art, and performance, with glow-in-the-dark dances, flaming sculptures, LED light shows, and more.

The festival was conceived when a local artist, named Steve Cooper, pitched the idea to Nina Simon, executive director of the MAH. “It seemed like a good idea and a good challenge to figure out if we could make this happen in Downtown Santa Cruz,” says Simon. “So we’ve been working for a few months to coordinate the artists, work with the fire department, and work with the city to make sure that this is doable.”

In terms of the scale of the event, ambition is the name of the game. “We’re closing down Cooper Street and we’ll be having performances on the street,” says Stacey Marie Garcia, director of community programs at the MAH. “We’ll also have a series of fire sculptures and fire performances in Abbott Square and in our back patio, and then inside the building we’ll have a lot of digital art pieces; most of these are interactive. We’ll also have a blacklight room with a bunch of different crafting activities.”

Hosking’s contribution to the festival will be the renowned “Satan’s Calliope,” which mostly defies description, but is essentially a pipe organ that breathes fire. It sits on an electric golf cart, and is played by Hosking using a midi keyboard.

The idea for the piece came to Hosking during her first trip to Burning Man. “[In the] middle of my first day, I got out, walked around, and the place and things I saw put the idea for ‘Satan’s Calliope’ in my head,” she says. “I got all inspired; I came home, I bought a welder, raided all the surplus shops for materials and bought some new stuff, and started working on the darn thing and pretty much discovered I had created a monster.”

Now regarded as a pioneer of Burning Man, where “Satan’s Calliope” is a hit, Hosking—who lives and works in Santa Cruz—says, “I’ve blundered into something that is so much fun to do, and it just tickles people’s brains in a way that I have never seen anything else do. It certainly tickles my brain.” Citing a go-to phrase she uses to describe “Satan’s Calliope,” she says, “It’s art and science going gloriously wrong together in the service of fun.”

“Lucy is just brilliant,” says Cooper, who—in addition to dreaming up and assisting in the development of the festival—curated the fire art pieces. “She just thinks outside of the box in so many ways on how to incorporate fire into art, and then executes it in exquisite, precise fashion. It’s elegant the way she puts it all together.” Drew Detweiler programmed the contributions from the digital artists.

All of the participants of “GLOW”—fire or digital—are volunteering their time for the festival. And according to Garcia, this fact speaks volumes of the community’s dedication to the arts.

While all of the fire artists taking part are local, the Santa Cruz fire art community is influential beyond the city limits. “Even though we’re a small group of artists here in Santa Cruz, we actually have a pretty global reach, in terms of the events that use our flame effects, or people that have purchased them,” says Cooper.

Despite their broad influence, local fire artists very rarely get the opportunity to showcase their work in Santa Cruz, or to a non-Burning Man audience. “This will be a debut for all of these pieces together,” says Cooper. “This is the first time since Burning Man that these pieces have all been in one place at the same time.”

The festival affords a unique opportunity not only to the artists, but to attendees as well. “This is an opportunity to see art that you’ve never seen in Downtown Santa Cruz before,” says Simon. “You don’t have to be an art aficionado to love this. We’re trying to create events that give people a cultural experience that’s affordable, that’s fun, and that’s accessible for a whole family.”

Perhaps the event holds an even deeper, existential attraction. “Fire is one of those primal things,” says Cooper. “Even though we’re really sophisticated beings, we still love fire, and it goes back to those primitive roots. Very rarely do we get to see fire in full glory … here we have it now in a safe environment, on a canvas that allows it to be used artistically.”

Hosking, meanwhile, sees a like-minded collaborator in fire. “It’s always been one of the most fascinating things, just aesthetically, and spiritually, too; it represents something that is unique on this planet,” she says. “It’s just something I feel a deep species connection to.”

As such, Hosking has always been comfortable with fire, despite the potential hazards in her line of work. “I’m 59 years old and I can still count to 10,” she says, wiggling her fingers. “I’ve both been a little lucky and a lot careful.”

Hosking has also been wildly imaginative, as evidenced by her work. “The ideas to do this kind of stuff come to me unbidden,” she says. “I don’t look for it, it just wells up and kind of gets constipated in my head, and my head will explode if I don’t get some of them out into hard reality every now and then.”

“GLOW: A Festival of Fire and Light” takes place from 6-10 p.m. Friday, March 16, at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $5/general, $3/students and children,
No Cover/MAH members. Rain or shine. For more information, call 429-1964. Photos: Keana Parker

Note: due to the rain we have extended the GLOW festival. Part 1 on March 16 will be indoors and focus on digital art. Part 2 on March 23 will be outdoors and focus on fire. Hope to see you at both!

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