March 11, 2009

Artists sue Nevada farmer over Burning Man ship

La Contessa in better times.

Associated Press

RENO, Nev.—Two San Francisco artists are seeking nearly $1 million from a Nevada farmer for torching what was once an elaborate replica of a Spanish galleon that sailed the sandy seas of the Black Rock Desert during the annual Burning Man Festival.

The 40-foot replica of the 16th century vessel was owned by artist Simon Cheffins and mechanical engineer Gregory Jones.

Their suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Reno seeks damages from Michael Stewart, owner of Empire and Orient farms in Gerlach, under The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

But like any art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And after sitting abandoned for two years in the harsh Nevada desert, the once iconic ship was more a rusty eyesore than a crowned jewel, Stewart's lawyer Keegan Low said Wednesday.

Stewart considered the ship, which was built on the body of a school bus, to be "junk" and torched it when he acquired the private property where it was stored, court documents show.

Paul Quade, the artists' Reno attorney, said the federal laws "does clearly protect the artists' work from any type of mutilation or destruction," regardless of whether it's on private property.

The suit alleges Stewart made no attempt to contact the owners about its removal.

"There is a responsibility on behalf of a landowner that has a peace of art to ... contact the artists and address the issue as far as removal is concerned and what steps are going to be taken," Quade said.

Being on private property, he said, doesn't entitled a landowner "to burn a peace of artwork because they don't appreciate that art."

"It's not everyone's cup of tea. We acknowledge that," Quade said. "But for someone to be so callous to call it a peace of junk ..."

Stewart, through his attorney, said after it was parked in the fall of 2004 with a broken axle, no one ever came to check on it.

"It sat for two years unattended and abandoned," Low said. "Nobody claimed it, nobody visited it."

Quade said that wasn't true. He said the artists retrieved the ship and exhibited it at Burning Man in 2005.

"The artists checked on it every couple months to make sure it was being properly maintained and taken care of," he said, adding that the last time they visited it was "within a couple of months" of when it was destroyed in December 2006.

La Contessa under fire.

The ship, a popular "artcar" at the annual counterculture gathering, was banned from the festival after 2004 because of safety concerns. The driver of the bus, with limited visibility, maneuvered the massive vessel by radio directions from someone on the deck.

"La Contessa was a work of a recognized stature, widely acknowledged for its artistic merit and internationally know for its unique character," the suit said.

About 100 people toiled on the project that involved thousands of hours and donated funds and grant money, Quade said.

It's bow was adorned by a woman's figure crafted by San Francisco sculpture Monica Maduro and it's inside was described as opulent, with gilded frames and velvet trim. The figurehead was later stolen from the vessel and has never surfaced, Quade said.

The artists parked it on a nearby ranch with permission from owner Joan Grant.

Stewart, a critic of Burning Man, bought the property from Grant in 2004 but allowed her to live there until she died or decided to move. Grant moved in 2005 after her mobile home burned down in a grease fire, documents said.

Stewart acknowledged reducing La Contessa to scrap metal by setting it on fire Dec. 5, 2006.

"On my property next to where Mrs. Grant's burned trailer and partially burned shed was located was an abandoned non-operating school bus built to look like a ship," Stewart wrote in statement as part of a sheriff's investigation into the fire.

"It was more junk to me."

No criminal charges were filed in the case.