Austin art in the heart of Burning Man

Aug. 27--

For the past nine years, firefighter Toby Heidel has dedicated his life to saving lives while extinguishing dangerous flames throughout Travis County.

But on his own time, Heidel is all about the blaze.

For the past 10 weeks, Heidel and dozens of volunteers have been building a 25-foot wooden effigy that will go up in flames this weekend at Burning Man in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada.

Each August, over 65,000 burners flock to the Black Rock Desert to build a fully functioning pop-up city that is a mecca for people looking as much for transformative experiences as they are a good time. For that time, Black Rock Desert becomes Black Rock City, which is the third-most populated city in Nevada behind Reno and Las Vegas.

Members of two Austin-based groups will be among the throngs at this year's event, but they won't just be bringing food, water, shelter and supplies for the week.

For months, these teams, called the Texas Souk and Texas C.O.R.E. (Circle of Regional Effigies), have been assembling two projects they hauled approximately 1,392 miles northwest to the desert: a mobile market that will offer goods for exchange on site at Burning Man and one of the prominently exhibited pieces of art that will be set on fire Saturday.

Heidel serves as the Austin lead of the Texas Souk, a statewide conglomerate of burners in the Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso and Houston areas, who meet once a week leading up to the seven-day festival.

"Souk" is an Arab word for market or bazaar, and even though the Burning Man souks created by similar groups across the country are filled with goods such as spices, wind chimes, musical instruments and incense, nothing is bought or sold. Heidel says that spirit of "decommodification" is one of the 10 core principles of Burning Man culture.

"That idea that it's just this free-for-all where it's just a couple of people huddled over a campfire with a couple of sticks rubbed together is far from the reality," Heidel says. The same is true for Burning Man's reputation as one big party in the desert. "There's this real sense of responsibility that you're expected to have."

Burning Man's 10 core principles -- radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, immediacy and to leave no trace -- are all etched into the minds of travelers as they attend the big burn.

The marketplaces are built around the Man, a colossal, 80-foot effigy that will also go up in flames Saturday. The Man was assembled by the Black Rock LLC's build team, which is based out of San Francisco. Black Rock LLC is the company responsible for the Burning Man event. One of the smaller effigies that will burn alongside it was assembled by Texas C.O.R.E. as they met every Wednesday at a warehouse in East Austin during a gathering that many of them, including Heidel, call "church night."

This year's Texas C.O.R.E. work is called "Shrine of the Crossroads," and it's a massive, 25-foot gazebo-esque structure made mostly of wood that people at Burning Man can walk inside, climb on and enjoy in any way up until midnight Saturday, when the effigy will go up in flames.

"It is human nature to want to build things that last forever, leave a legacy, but that isn't the reality," said Heidel. "The burning of our art reminds us that nothing here that you can own or build lasts forever and everything on this earth will be gone at some point."

Heidel will be one of many firefighters on hand in case flames get out of control, but he enjoys the fires. "Here's the secret that we firefighters don't tell people: We're all pyromaniacs. All firefighters love fire."

Heidel didn't know much about Burning culture until four years ago when he attended Burning Flipside, a spinoff event in Central Texas that started in 2001 and now draws about 2,500 to 3,000 participants every year on Memorial Day weekend.

"Some of the things you read about (Burning Man) are a little titillating or a little extreme, and I think that kept me away for a long time," he said. "It was like nothing I've ever been to. It was just this really, really neat experience, and I really was hooked from the first time."

He went to his first Burning Man in 2012 and attended again last year and this year. Now he has taken on some of the behind-the-scenes leadership roles required to pull off such a large-scale event so far from civilization.

Just the logistics of planning the effigies and souks, organizing the people and funding to put them together and then hauling it all out to the desert, setting it up, breaking it down and leaving no trace behind, "it's a sight to see," Heidel says.

The Texas Souk and "Shrine of the Crossroads" projects cost less than $10,000 each, and the volunteers raised much of that money through online fundraisers and a small grant from Burning Man. Getting these projects finished in time made it a team effort in more ways than one.

Matthew DeVay is another Austinite who worked for weeks on the projects and was in charge of driving them out to Nevada earlier this month. For the past week and a half, DeVay has been in the Black Rock Desert assembling the Shrine of the Crossroads effigy that had to be broken down in Austin before his team could load it up for transport.

It's a lot of work for no pay, but DeVay says no one is involved in Burning Man for the money.

"You meet people that are really passionate about what they do and bring and build," said DeVay. "You get to meet these amazing artists that have these great, creative ideas, and they are out busting their butts to realize it out in the middle of this incredibly adverse environment."

As the desert's sun causes the temperature to exceed the triple digits, Heidel, DeVay and their respective teams work on.

"You really have to pack and prepare for everything as temperatures can range from 35 to 105 degrees," said Heidel. "Weather is always a factor."

Like so many fellow Burners, they work to entertain, build and share their art, gifts and talents with the thousands of participants who travel from all over the world to Burning Man.

Weeks after loading up their large moving trucks with arts and gifts for the souk and the effigy, Heidel and DeVay will return to Austin next week with an empty truck.

And next year, they'll do it all over again.

"We care so much about the art that we'll do almost anything to build it," said DeVay.

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