Burning Man Sparks the Flame

of Creativity for San Diego Artist

Vulfie Munson with partner J. Paloma Glass poses in front of his sculpture, Improba Putti.

For those who love the idea of artistic self-expression, there’s nothing quite like Burning Man. Taking place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, this annual gathering brings together tens of thousands of people for a week-long experience that emphasizes artistic self-expression as well as the principles of community cooperation, inclusion, self-reliance, participation, decommodification, civic responsibility, gifting, immediacy and leaving no trace.

As an accomplished decorative painting artist and sculptor based in San Diego, Vulfie Munson has been a Burning Man enthusiast for a decade. Participants erect a temporary community known as Black Rock City with villages and theme camps. Having attended eight of the last 10 Burning Man events, Vulfie has participated in creating art for the theme camps and also has designed elaborate art cars.

Vulfie is co-founder of Olde World Artisans in San Diego, a faux-finishing business that he launched in conjunction with partner J. Paloma Glass. A decorative artist for 27 years, Vulfie has enjoyed providing art for the Burning Man event as a form of stretching his artistic limits.

His latest work, for the 2016 Burning Man event, is a sculpture called Improba Putti, a Renaissance-inspired piece featuring a female centaur being pulled by winged putti (i.e., Renaissance cherub figures). The paper mâché sculpture featured the look of patinated bronze and copper and was elevated on a plinth encircled by four bas-relief renderings depicting underground scenes, using such elements as caves, roots, stalactites, crayfish, bats, a salamander and an armadillo.

Vulfie and his team finish up the sculpture on-site.

An Irresistible Theme

Participating in Burning Man takes a tremendous commitment in time and effort. It’s essentially a labor of love. Some artists, like Vulfie, receive an art grant to offset materials costs, but much of the financing of the projects for materials and services (such as transporting their artwork) comes from their own pockets.

“A lot of people have to take off a year or more in between projects, or they would go broke,” Vulfie says.

Originally Vulfie was going to skip the Burning Man event this year, but then he received an e-mail announcing the 2016 theme, which proved irresistible: “DaVinci’s Workshop.”

“Someone I knew from Burning Man said to me, ‘This is right up your alley,’ ” Vulfie says. “They wanted something to reflect the early Renaissance period plus have the feel of Burning Man.”

Vulfie submitted his idea for a sculpture in keeping with the theme. The Burning Man organizers originally were going to choose one or two sculptures, but when entries topped 1,000, they changed their mind.

Vulfie works on one of the bas-relief features. The quote is a whimsical reference to Burning Man founder Larry Harvey and translates as: “Larry loves big putti and cannot lie.”

“They couldn’t make up their mind on one or two, so they decided to do five,” Vulfie reports.

It took Vulfie five solid weeks of work, spread out over four months, to make his design vision a reality. The majority of the sculpture was created in his own studio, prior to his arrival at Burning Man. “I put on the upper putto just before taking it in a truck,” Vulfie says. “I was running behind schedule, and her arm was still wet.”

Racing to finish the sculpture in time for Burning Man 2016, which took place Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, Vulfie was reminded of a famous Leonard DaVinci quote: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

“That’s what I feel with most of my art,” he says. “I’m lucky I have deadlines to push me along."

Vulfie with the Frobot Art Car he created for a past Burning Man event. Below: For another Burning Man, Vulfie created the art car "Ceti Alpha V Eel," also known as CAVE.

Finishing Up On-Site

After making the 700-mile trek out to Black Rock City in a 26-foot-long box truck, Vulfie, joined by his partner Paloma and two other helpers, worked on-site to faux-finish the plinth that the sculpture was placed upon. The plinth was 9 feet wide by 5 feet deep by 7 feet tall. When the sculpture was placed on top of it, that added significant height to the final piece.

“It was nice because it gave me an opportunity to build a sculpture that big,” Vulfie says. “Most of the pieces I do are around 1-1/2 feet tall. This one is 11 feet tall and weighed an estimated 800 pounds.”

The faux finish for the plinth consisted of a tinted primer as a base coat, then four colors of glaze were used to create a sponge and stipple effect. In addition to the distinctive bas-relief sculptures, the plinth also features etchings of quotes in Latin. One of the quotes is a whimsical reference to Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey. It translates from the Latin as: “Larry loves big putti and cannot lie.”

Putting the finishing touches on Improba Putti was particularly challenging in the desert. As Vulfie’s partner, Paloma, relates, “They were not exactly optimal working conditions because of the white-outs you experience. You need to always be prepared with goggles, face masks and water, in case it goes for hours.”

Vulfie confirms that the Black Rock Desert is not a forgiving environment for decorative painting work. “There’s no sand; there’s powdery dust, and it gets everywhere,” he says.

However, there is a sense of creating art that is unique and noteworthy. And as Burning Man participants arrive for the event, the excitement of creating art in this public environment sustains the artists. “When we were setting up, a crowd gathered around to watch and take pictures,” Vulfie says.

The finished sculpture stood more than 11 feet high.

A Worthwhile Experience

The new techniques and skills that Vulfie learns have made his Burning Man endeavors worthwhile. “This year I learned how to mix my own paper maché and how to reinforce it,” he says. “In past years, I learned some interesting things doing my art cars. I’m able to stretch myself by learning something different every year.”

At the end of the Burning Man event, the Man sculpture—the centerpiece of the whole event—goes up in flames. “I was originally going to burn my sculpture along with the Man, but instead I donated it to a Burning Man Art Auction that benefits other artists,” Vulfie reports.

So Improba Putti lives on, which is gratifying after all the work that Vulfie and his team put into it.

Vulfie Munson, Burning Man enthusiast

Attending Burning Man, in and of itself, is a unique experience that, in many ways, defies description. Founded 20 years ago by Larry Harvey and Jerry James, Burning Man started out with just a handful of attendees on Baker Beach in San Francisco.

This year, the event  attracted 70,000 people. Some people enjoy the party atmosphere, others the ability to create art, interact, perform or otherwise express themselves. All of those in attendance, however, enjoy the experience of participating in a community.

“Everyone who goes to Burning Man has a different idea of what Burning Man is and what it’s supposed to be,” Vulfie says. “Whatever you are expecting, you’ll find it there.”