Burning Man’s Mandala Maker

Gerard Minakawa and His Starry Bamboo Mandala

by Molly Freedenberg

F03.jpgWhen most people refer to Burning Man art projects, they usually mean a kick-ass pair of handmade boot covers or an old beater bicycle spackled with red glitter. Some of the truly dedicated may be referring to more ambitious ideas: art-cars tricked out with fire cannons, dance domes decorated with papier-mâché fish, or an Airstream trailer lined with fuzzy purple fur. But almost no one undertakes the kind of art piece that 32-year-old Gerard Minakawa — founder of Ukao, a Santa Barbara-based bamboo furniture company — plans to execute this year: the Starry Bamboo Mandala.

This 55-foot structure represents the nexus of Minakawa’s interests and talents: ecologically friendly materials, radical and complex construction, and design that actually means something. Constructed completely out of organic materials — 21 tons of bamboo poles shipped from Colombia, 5,000 feet of manila rope, and more than 500 dowels — the structure expresses Minakawa’s dedication to sustainable building practices (as does his plan to donate leftover materials to Habitat for Humanity, rather than burn them). And Minakawa, with his small crew that includes S.B. lighting designer Jeffrey Boynton, are erecting the piece in these two weeks before Burning Man starts, withstanding 100-degree-plus temperatures, dust storms, and potential rainfall.

BambuSurworkshop.jpgNot content to simply create something beautiful, Minakawa’s innovative design draws on his research into the spiritual significance of different star shapes throughout history — the result will be a piece that looks like a supernova of bamboo poles from afar and a Star of David embedded within a Star of Lakshmi (from Hinduism) from inside. Those interested in the natural magic of mathematics will also be pleased to know that the structure draws on the Fibonnaci sequence.

“It’s a gift of sacred space,” said Minakawa, who was given a coveted Burning Man organization arts grant to complete the piece at this year’s festival, which runs August 28 through September 4. He expects the light, strong, flexible structure to be a performance space for Burning Man artists, as well as a climb-able vantage point from which to view the desert landscape.

But it’s also a gift of remarkable vision, excellent design, and plain-old elbow grease, all things Minakawa doles out in bucketloads. The New York native (born to a Japanese-Bolivian father and Italian-Argentine mother) started Ukao at age 26, after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design and moving to Carpinteria to work with Forms+Surfaces. His furniture was so innovative, he’s been recognized by publications such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, Boston Globe, and I.D., where he was listed as one of the magazine’s 40 designers to watch in 2006. He also won first place in the 2002 International Design Resource Awards.

For his first Burning Man in 2003, Minakawa helped build a bamboo bridge. Then in 2004, he designed the 20-foot Bamboo Trapezium, which caused Burning Man’s art curators to encourage his application for this year’s grant.

With energy left to burn, Minakawa sold or packed up everything he owned and moved to Bolivia, where he set up a bamboo workshop and a retail store, consults with nonprofit Aid to Artisans, and is collaborating with an indigenous Aymaran family on pieces that will be exhibited in New York City in spring 2007.

Clearly, Minakawa has come a long way from his first bamboo piece: a pergola for the entrance to Livingreen’s retail store on Helena Avenue. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows him, since he’s always on the move, traveling the world in pursuit of inspiration and innovation. So it’s fitting that his Burning Man project is called a “mandala” — defined as “container of essence” — for this project, in all its ambition and beauty, truly reflects the essence of its illustrious creator.

It Really Is

For more info visit,,, and Brian Doherty’s This Is Burning Man reviewed by Molly Freedenberg

People who go to Burning Man are a notoriously possessive bunch, profoundly skeptical of the event getting any kind of mainstream media attention. As a veteran burner, I’m not necessarily any different, so I approached Brian Doherty’s book This Is Burning Man with more than my share of doubt.

Would this be some newbie’s love letter to the party that convinced him to leave his girlfriend and join a men’s group? Would it be some journalist’s watered-down, narrow-minded version of an event he’d never experienced? Would it be a propagandist vehicle for the version of the festival that organizers are always trying to portray?

bm.jpgIt must be, I figured, because it couldn’t possibly express the diversity of experiences and interpretations of this strange phenomenon. It couldn’t capture the varying views of the thousands of people who flock to Nevada every year, and their thousands of varying reasons for doing so. It couldn’t explain both the controversy and the deep passion that Burning Man always seems to be surrounded by.

But much to my delight, it could and did. Thanks to mystical powers of dedication, observation, and patience — and thanks to a rare ability to both participate in and objectively consider something at the same time — Doherty has accomplished a nearly impossible feat: A Burning Man book that informs and challenges burners while also giving those who’ve never heard of the festival a clear and complete explanation of what the hell this phenomenon is.

The primary reason this book works so well is that Doherty seemed to leave no stone unturned, tracking down everyone from founder Larry Harvey to Burning Man celebrity (and S.B. local) Dr. Megavolt, from Bureau of Land Management reps to the guy whose 50 stacked pianos started a trend of large-scale absurdist art. There wasn’t a single rumor or story or important moment in Burning Man history that he seemed to miss.

But he also weaved it all together in a remarkably engaging, honest way. He presents his own experience, but never at the expense of the larger story. When accounts are contradictory, he lays out both versions (and often, why the contradictions may exist). As he walks the reader through Burning Man’s chronological history, he also unravels a narrative about what the festival means on personal, political, and spiritual levels.

It’s the most comprehensive account of the festival yet, a must-read for anyone for whom Burning Man means anything. And that’s saying a lot coming from me, a fellow burner who was prepared to hate it.

For more on Brian Doherty’s This Is Burning Man, visit

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