Discover the Vibrant Burning Man Community in Sonoma County
Every Labor Day weekend, costumed revelers from around the world converge on “the Playa” at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for Burning Man, a festival known for its amazing art and self-expression. However, you don’t need to wait until then to experience it. If you know where to look, you’ll find the imprint of “Burners” and other like-minded folks right here in Sonoma County, not only in incomparable artwork and interactive events, but in a conscious community, too. No dust goggles needed!
In fact, some of the most celebrated artists in Burning Man’s 30+-year history have chosen to call Sonoma County home.
As it’s said at Burning Man, “Welcome Home”... you’re right where you belong.
‘Norman Rockwell Meets David Lynch’
You’ll likely find the strongest Burning Man vibes in Petaluma, a funky little river town that artist Michael Garlington describes as “Norman Rockwell meets David Lynch” – a place where pure Americana meets the unabashedly weird. As the former, longtime home of acclaimed abstract expressionist sculptor Mark diSuvero, the town particularly nurtures 3D artists and builders.
With the Rivertown Revival, the town also throws a rousing annual festival of art and community with big steampunk energy. Taking place on the banks of the Petaluma River, the event includes water activities, live music, and a children’s play area. As you might guess, the festival also involves plenty of interactive art and sculpture – partly masterminded by the local community of Burners.
Situated near the train depot, Petaluma Arts Center is a bastion of creativity, which, in 2019, hosted “Petaluma to the Playa,” an exhibit showcasing local artists with international renown and strong connections to Burning Man. Check out the schedule of exhibitions, gatherings, and classes.
Must-Know ‘Burner’ Artists in Sonoma County
In 2000, David Best led the construction of an intricate Temple using reclaimed wood from a toy manufacturer, which would be ceremoniously burned to the ground at the close of the Nevada event. In years following, the Temple became a central tradition of the festival, and Best’s work continued to appear far and wide from Nepal to Ireland. In Sonoma County, you’ll find his work in a range of locations:
- “River Arch” (2022), a publicly commissioned piece that stands along Lynch Creek Trail overlooking the Petaluma River
- “Temple of Remembrance” (2021) a permanent, 25-ton installation on the sprawling estate of Paradise Ridge Winery that offers space for reflection and renewal. Make sure to stroll the grounds and explore the winery’s rotating exhibit of sculpture.
Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti create large-scale photo structures that have not only graced the Playa, but have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute. According to Garlington, the best local venue to view their artwork is at their home in Petaluma, where the duo “is always working on some project or another” and welcomes folks to view works in progress (by appointment only). Reach out to schedule a visit at michaelgarlington.com.
Kevin Clark is best known as the builder of flaming metal sculptures, most notably the “Rhino Redemption Art Car,” created in collaboration with T.M. Potter. A graduate of Sonoma State University, Clark is a homegrown local who’s situated his studio, Reared in Steel, a few blocks from downtown Petaluma. While it’s not open to the public, you can often see evidence of his work peeking out above the gates.
As a collaborator of David Best on the original Temple, lightning designer for the iconic Man for two decades running, and (in the words of one fellow artist) an “absolute mentor,” Jack “Opa” Haye has helped give life to Burning Man while simultaneously pouring goodwill into his local community. Haye has served on the board of the Phoenix Theater, a local youth community center that’s home to one of Petaluma’s most striking murals, designed by artist Ricky Watts. As well, Haye’s son Henry Washer is an accomplished sculptor whose work can be viewed (among other places) at the Petaluma Arts Center.
Italian-born, self-taught sculptor Marco Cochrane works with Julia Whitelaw to shape looming 40-feet-tall female figures that have appeared in the Black Rock Desert and around the Bay Area. For the current whereabouts of his “REvolution'' sculpture series, check the artists’ website, marcocochrane.com.
Based in Glen Ellen, Bryan Tedrick creates massive works of steel that have been exhibited around the world. You’ll find them around town here:
- “Big Bad Bear” (2022) is a hulking 28-foot-tall form installed on the grounds of St. Anne’s Crossing Winery in Kenwood.
- “Lord Snort” (2016) is an enormous depiction of a galloping boar that was installed on the grounds of Soda Rock Winery. It is now a symbol of survival and hope, and has even been honored with its own wine.
- “Coyote” (2013) was originally crafted for a Burning Man festival, then later found a home at Wilson Winery.
- “Bike Rack” (2011) is … well, you guessed it! Form meets function in this elegant piece on the Sonoma Plaza.
- “Spread Eagle” (2008) is a dramatic piece that’s made an impression on anyone lucky enough to have caught a glimpse of it over the years. Originally crafted for Burning Man, it now lives at Wine Country Garden Design Center, just south of the Sonoma Plaza on Highway 12.
Tony Speirs is a painter known for community collaboration, including at Burning Man. In 2018, Speirs lovingly rendered portraits of each victim of the Parkland school shootings, displaying them as a completed mural on a busy Santa Rosa street corner. While the mural is now dismantled, you can find his artwork at local galleries and through Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
To find more opportunities to view work from these artists, check out their individual websites. Discover more art in Petaluma by checking out this sculpture trail.
In addition, this art trail in Northern Sonoma County spans several towns and a range of styles, while this one in Sebastopol runs three blocks and features art made from upcycled car parts, cookware, and aluminum cans.
Written by Amy Bess Cook