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Talent artist's sculpture one of 47 selected for Burning Man grant

While Talent sculptor Kevin Christman was creating a large, clay sculpture of a woman in the fetal position, the clay began to crack like a dry riverbed — or, if you've ever been to Burning Man, like the playa.

Playa is the name for the land in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, where the weeklong art festival takes place each year.

The texture that Christman's work took on inspired him to apply for an art grant from Black Rock City LLC, the San Francisco-based nonprofit behind Burning Man. Christman's sculpture was one of 47 art projects given awards this year, and he was the only Oregon artist selected.

No doubt the female aspects of his creation, along with the tree-like structure integrating elements of life and death with a large DNA-like swirl at the top, attracted Burning Man organizers to his work, Christman says, because this year's festival theme is "fertility."

When Christman attended the festival for the first time in 2009, he was struck by the art and how surreal it appears in the desert landscape. "I love how the people gather around the art," said Christman. "The whole event is about a shift in thinking. That's the idea of this figure going into the fetal position and finding the balance. So, on a grander scale, this is a visual representation to stimulate that shift."

Creating artwork for Burning Man can be challenging because of the difficulties presented by the harsh setting. Unpredictable weather, high winds, and lots of playa dust, a talc-like powder, affect all aspects of transportation, engineering and construction.

The piece, called "The Tree of Transmutation," stands 21 feet tall and 16 feet wide.

At the base of the tree in Christman's sculpture is a wooden pyramid constructed like a Mayan wall, with a puzzle surface of blocks of pine. Above that, a cluster of 13 human skeletons form a ball, and hanging in the middle is a small replica of the female figure made of iron. At the top is a swirl of piping similar to a strand of DNA, which was inspired by the swirl of flames that fill the sky at Burning Man on the second-to-last day when the man is burned. The piece will be illuminated from within so it will glow at night.

"What struck me after the man burns is how everyone rushes around the fire and starts running in a large circle around it," said Christman, "creating a swirl in the smoke. It's a surreal experience. I found it very powerful and amazing."

With the festival only two months away, Christman is in a time crunch to get everything constructed and engineered in time to set it up for the festival, which runs from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3.

"Yesterday, there were six people helping," said Christman, in his Talent studio.

A large, curled-up nude female figure takes up a lot of space in Christman's studio as he coats it with silicone rubber to make a mold that will be sent to Portland, where six fiberglass copies of the figure will be made. The female figures will then be suspended from the tree, somewhat like the form of a chandelier.

"Then we'll figure out the engineering we need to support it," said Christman.

Once the molds come back from Portland, Christman and his crew will have less than a month to put it together and get it to the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno.

This year, the demand for Burning Man tickets is higher than ever. The festival sold out in 2011 for the first time in its 25-year history. The organization leases the land from the Bureau of Land Management, which limits the number of attendees. BLM issued a special recreation permit this year that allows 60,900 people to congregate on the site.

One major perk of having his work accepted is that he was given 15 tickets for himself and his construction crew.

The honorarium from Burning Man will provide Christman with about half the money he needs to transport his piece (he is contractually unable to disclose the amount, he says), so he is starting a page on Kickstarter.com to collect donations to finance the rest of his costs.

Christman is hoping to raise at least $10,000 during the 30-day Kickstarter campaign. He will give gifts for each donation he receives, he says, from stickers for $10 donations to sculptures for larger contributions.

If someone donates $6,000, Christman says, he will give them one of his bronze statues. For $15,000, he'll give away a full-scale sculpture.

For more information, see www.kevinchristman.com.

Reach reporter Mandy Valencia at avalencia@mailtribune.com.