Features and Occasionals

Fire, Solar and Soul

By Sophie Silverstone

It was that time of year when almost all the cosmonauts in the entire universe were untangling LED lights and preparing their campers to enter the dusty, week-long, 80,000-attendee Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada (August 28-September 3). Also in preparation, the Jenkstar Center for Arts and Sustainable Living (CASL) alongside the Sugar House TRAX S-line was bustling with a new project.

Jenkstar honcho and Park City artist Scott Whitaker (aka Scotty Soltronic) is well known on the festival circuit and beyond as the creator of the Solar Saucer art car—a solar array that doubles as a DJ booth and educational tool. Whitaker planned on skipping Burning Man this year. But his latest project of solar in Grand Junction, created with Birdie Hess and called Sol Sistas, will have had a very big presence at the festival: providing the solar power for the largest art piece at Burning Man 2016 which is also one of the largest burned sculptures in the history of the event: “The Catacomb of Veils.”

Created by Bay area architect Dan Sullivan and his team, The Catacomb of the Veils was inspired by the landscape of the Black Rock Desert. Built of used Ikea pallets and covered in driftwood, the giant wooden mountainscape covered four football fields. Participants entered the exhibit through walkways that snaked up to the top and descended into the depths.

If all goes as planned, the $90,000 Indie-go-go-funded Catacomb will have burned the weekend of September 3, near the conclusion of the weeklong event . A conflagration such as this is a serious spiritual event for those who experience it.

However, the mighty little Utah project that powered it for the week prior, Sol Sistas, lives on, and carries forth a different meaning.

The Sol Sistas project, conceived in collaboration with Ryan Wartena of Growing Energy Labs and Black Rock Labs—essentially a Burning Man think tank—is, by contrast, the product of pure manifestation; no budget and no materials were provided, says Whitaker. In accordance with the JenkStar motto, Reduce, Reuse, Restore, and Rethink, all of the materials including the solar panels, the steel frame, the inverters and battery packs were donated and all lived previous lives. The planning, design and fabrication of the project took place in less than 10 days, and at press time was being installed in Black Rock City. The array is capable of generating solar power at the rate of five kilowatts per hour. The 5,000-watt solar array is enough to power a standard American house, says Whitaker.

While there is a certain irony to the largest burned project in the history of Burning Man being solar powered, the visibility alone for such a high profile piece of Burning Man art is huge for solar power education and the JenkStar art collective. A firm believer in art living on after the burn, Whitaker plans to take the Sol Sistas to many future events.

Whitaker’s similar project created in 2006, the Solar Saucer, has demonstrated the simplicity and potential of solar power. The solar powered art car has been by tens of thousands of people across the U.S. having attended hundreds of farmer’s markets, festivals, bar mitzvahs and elementary schools. You can see the Solar Saucer and other solar-powered projects by the JenkStars at their annual festival, Melon Nights, September 17-18 at the JenkStar Ranch in Green River.

Sophie Silverstone is CATALYST’s community development director, distribution manager and, for this issue, production manager in place of John deJong, who was away at Burning Man.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2016.