By the time I gather SFR’s art director and head back to Stark Raven Fabrication at the far reaches of the Southside, the crew working on artist Tigre Mashaal-Lively’s newest sculpture has grown exponentially. The energy is chaotic but palpably positive. People in heavy gloves and welding helmets flit around the warehouse—home to a fabrication shop whose operators are working with Mashaal-Lively on the project, and most likely, on whatever subsequent pieces come up. Anyone who stops a moment to speak with us seems stressed, but it’s a good stress and they only have upbeat things to say. Everyone has been working toward something big. Everything is happening all at once. Everyone is ready.
I’ve been mildly obsessed with Mashaal-Lively’s work since they first hit my radar upon co-founding Santa Fe’s Earthseed Black Arts Alliance in 2020. This is the third or fourth time I’ve been to Stark Raven to poke around and get in everyone’s way. We’re in search of a killer cover photo, even if the folks working on the project likely grew tired of being photographed at the second or third meeting. Still, Mashaal-Lively is nearing a milestone with their newest work, and they deserve to take a bow.
The piece in question is titled “Facing the Fearbeast,” a massive and immersive multimedia sculpture that will, when finished, feature an imposing black monster with many eyes facing a small child—within its mouth, a mirror image of the child stares out. The sculpture, complete with LED and audio elements, will land among 400-plus other pieces by artists from around the globe at the Burning Man Playa in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
The annual desert bacchanal runs this year from Aug. 28 through Sept. 5.
“Facing the Fearbeast” is meant to convey the “inner demons, traumas and self-deceits that threaten our well-being and thriving,” reads an artist statement from Mashaal-Lively on facingthefearbeast.com. But there’s a deeper message of hope: “We choose to move past the false narrative of the Hero Alone,” the site reads, “to stand alongside each other in true love and siblingship.”
Call it self-portraiture, call it universally relatable, call it what you like, the core tenets of “Facing the Fearbeast” dwell in all of us in one way or another, and it demands reflection. Humankind has always faced internal and external struggles, but the noxious mix of a pandemic stretching into its third year amid yet another rise in police brutality and racist violence has left the nation on edge.
The beast is also another in a long line of thoughtful works from Mashaal-Lively.
In 2020, for example, they co-created a wooden altar in the Railyard as a site for healing; in 2021, they installed the 21-foot sculpture “The Solacii,” which was originally built in 2016, also for Burning Man, outside Guadalupe Street’s form & concept gallery. An as-yet unidentified assailant set fire to the latter piece a year ago, but Mashaal-Lively rebuilt it stronger than ever. Like most things they do, a healthy dash of fortitude went into the mix.
Such fortitude is obvious as the newest project continues. Mashaal-Lively and their crew won’t fully assemble the beast in Santa Fe before it heads to the annual artists’ gathering. By the time you read this, it will have shipped to Nevada in pieces weighing about 7,000 pounds, according to crew member and Earthseed co-founder Nikesha Breeze. Once there, it will achieve its final form—amazing when we consider that a few short weeks ago, the gargantuan jumble of metals, cast resin and tires was a mere steel skeleton with little hint of its impending prowess and power.
“The idea came to me some years ago, and it came—as often happens with my projects—both as a flash of inspiration, as well as a slowly incubating development process,” Mashaal-Lively tells SFR. “It was in 2020, although the idea of a child facing a snarling beast was something I’d started thinking about earlier than that.”
Originally, they say, the idea was to craft the piece from burnt wood and branches using techniques they’d worked with before. Previous Mashaal-Lively works, like “Jardin de Sueños” and “Old Tree,” showcase this methodology well, but those earlier ideas fell by the wayside as the true scope of the beast revealed itself to the artist. In the end, it had to be imposingly large to strike the tone Mashaal-Lively wanted—it had to be made of metal to reach its full potential.
“From that point, I’d have these moments, and when these moments come, I call them an assignment from God, which I mean both totally sincerely and a little bit tongue-in-cheek,” Mashaal-Lively continues. “At that point, it hit me like, ‘Oh, shit, I don’t know when or what it’s going to look like, but I know it’s going to be hard—and I know I’m going to have to do it.’”
Mashaal-Lively kicked off the process with illustrations.
“I was sketching,” they say. “I grew up drawing, and that is kind of the basis of my practice still, so a lot of the early iterations were 2-D drawings.”
They created digital paintings and 3-D renderings as well, but in those early, illustrated concepts, the beast was much larger and reared up on two legs. Now its legs feel more insect-like, both in number and appearance; now its ferocious teeth are made from discarded motorcycle tires from local mechanics who usually have to pay to discard the vulcanized rubber. Orginal vision or no, it still casts an intense image.
The funding was no easy feat, either.
Mashaal-Lively applied for and received $30,000 from Burning Man’s Black Rock City Honoraria Program. Having shown work at the event before, they were already a known commodity but, according to Burning Man Art Management Specialist spec Guy, who is also Mashaal-Lively’s artist liaison for the gathering, the grant is about so much more than that.
“We definitely want to know if someone has experience, because building art is hard anyway, and building art on the Playa is exceptionally hard,” Guy tells SFR. “We don’t want to just fund the same people year after year, but we also want to recognize when somebody has done a project before and are now doing something new.”
Guy says much goes into selecting grant recipients, and while she does play a role in the money’s disbursement, she’s not on the panel that makes the call. As an arts professional and an appreciator, however, Guy speaks highly of “Facing the Fearbeast.”
“I always think it’s fascinating when I find a piece of art beautiful, but terrifying at the same time, and I think Tigre nailed that perfectly,” she says. “I think the art you’ll find at Burning Man is quite different from what you can experience anyplace else, and that’s what makes this so special. You’ve got the ultimate tabula rasa; and the special sauce for every art project is when the event starts and the art shows up, then the people show up, and seeing what the people do with it.”
According to Guy, attendees can expect over 400 pieces at Burning Man this year, though just 84 received funding from the event’s grantmaking arm. Between the Honoraria Program and Burning Man’s Temple Grant, the festival gives out roughly $1.3 million each year. It’s a competitive pool and a tremendous accomplishment, and the Reno Gazette Journal estimates about 80,000 people will attend. Mashaal-Lively also raised money through crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, and says “Facing the Fearbeast” had hit close to $15,000 at last count. Private donations totaling about $5,000 also made their way to the project through fiscal sponsor Littleglobe, a Santa Fe nonprofit focused on storytelling. The project is, according to Littleglobe Executive Director Chris Jonas, “perfectly aligned with what we do.”
Still, Mashaal-Lively says, wanting to do something and making it happen can create conflicting stories.
“The problem with doing a project about facing your fears is all the things that are scary about it—the reasons to do it are the reasons to want to quit,” the artist says. “In the context of the assault on Black lives, the increasing fear and danger, it felt more present. And also, the last couple years, not starting with 2020 and the pandemic, but certainly exacerbated by it, I’ve been in a long, challenging journey around mental health. I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety and the things that brought me to New Mexico in the first place.”
It’s a common refrain from artists who stay in Santa Fe long-term: Feeling overburdened, they come to the high desert. Once here, they unwittingly find a home. And so they remain.
Back at our final photo shoot, artists work furiously to meet coming deadlines across various bits and pieces of the project. Some smooth out the resin sculpture of the child, others work to create the beast’s legs which, according to Mashaal-Lively, were just recently finalized thanks to a suggestion from local artist Hernan Gomez Chavez, who stopped by earlier to volunteer his time. Volunteers have been a regular occurrence, according to artist and welder Thea Rae, a longtime friend of Mashaal-Lively, who came in from New York City to lend her expertise.
“That’s just kind of how projects like this go,” Rae tells SFR during a quick break, adding that she didn’t hesitate to travel to help an old friend. “Tigre is pure light.”
These last few days before the sculpture ships are a far cry from where Mashaal-Lively and Stark Raven’s Calli Beck—who also serves as project manager for “Facing the Fearbeast”—and Lucas Janowski found themselves even a few months ago. In March, they moved into the 5,000 square-foot warehouse on Oliver Road, from which they’ll continue to work, host workshops and, with a little luck, house other local artists looking for a communal-type working situation. Holographist C Alex Clark already has a working area inside Stark Raven, for example, and others will surely come knocking.
Before the warehouse, Mashaal-Lively, Beck and Janowski shared space in a two-car garage in Lamy with even more artists and craftspeople. That’s where they completed their first collaboration: Mashaal-Lively’s “CoyoteSong” sculpture, a piece commissioned by the City of Santa Fe during the pandemic and installed this year at its Municipal Recreation Sports Complex at 205 Caja Del Rio Road. While she looks back fondly on the coyote job, Beck tells SFR, the constraints proved untenable.
“That was the first time we collaborated, the first time we were sharing shop space,” she says, “and we were outgrowing it almost before we started.”
That made it tough to engage in what we’ll call the core ethos of Stark Raven Fabrication. The idea, Beck says, is that if someone wants to learn how to properly use a tool—anything from a hammer to a waterjet to a laser cutter—she or Janowski or someone they know has the skill and wherewithal to make that happen. Part of it is about collaborative creativity, part is about safety—everything is about sharing knowledge for everyone’s betterment.
“Stark Raven is a space we want to fill with other artists, and we love bringing in friends and volunteers to teach them,” Beck says. “My big vision is that it’s the first incarnation of a solar-punk project, where we have a piece of land that’s a collective workshop and teaching space; something with a sculpture garden, land projects, permaculture; tiny houses for artists; community kitchen; lecture hall; movie theater...and all those other things that are involved in living in a post-capitalist system.”
Beck says she’d orbited Mashaal-Lively for a decade before they started collaborating. They’d learned dance from the same instructors and shown art in the same spaces and festivals. But where Mashaal-Lively tends to be more of a by-feel sort of creator and an experimenter, Beck operates from a rock-solid foundation of practical knowledge.
“I think it was along the lines of my skillset and their skillset have a Venn diagram,” she explains. “I’m much more design and business-oriented, whereas they’re more fine-art-oriented.”
That combination of skills has been a boon for Sophia Paez, a junior from Mashaal-Lively’s alma mater, Bennington College, and an intern on the “Fearbeast” project. She’s learned a lot from multiple angles, Paez tells SFR, and she’s grateful for the experience.
“I started off in college wanting to study sculpture, and I kind of veered off into curatorial work,” she says. “Working with Tigre has been refreshing—to get back into this sort of 3-D format.”
Paez will meet Mashaal-Lively in Nevada for the beast’s final assembly, and has put about six weeks into the project by the time we meet. During one visit, she works alongside Breeze to create a faux patina on steel scales with a blowtorch; at the next, she’s focused on the the beast’s eyeballs which, when you get up close, appear as screaming faces. And though Paez says she’s picked up a lot of new lessons along the way, she’ll particularly remember how deep the collaborative element goes on a Mashaal-Lively job.
“Ideas are always welcome here, which is beautiful, and everyone is accepting and has mastered their craft,” she explains. “I’ve worked with other artists before, but the focus people have given me here as an individual to try and push and exceed limitations you have for yourself? I get to see myself in this project, and I don’t think I fully accepted that idea until recently.”
Breeze echoes some of that sentiment the day after the beast ships.
“Tigre is widely open to troubleshooting and thinking about new ideas,” Breeze tells SFR. “Everyone is bringing high-level skills, and Tigre is in constant collaborative growth with other artists. Not only do they have a strong idea of what they want, if somebody comes up with another idea, a better idea, they’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’”
Breeze is a celebrated multidisciplinary artist, but so loved and believed in Mashaal-Lively’s work that they jumped at a chance to be involved. Much of Breeze’s contributions have to do with the child and its mirror image, particularly the cast resin process they landed on following extensive trial, error and experimentation. In the end Breeze created the cast with a material called Monster Clay, a malleable combination of clay, wax and polymer that can be endlessly melted down and restructured. The completed piece consists of a resin exterior and an interior steel armature surrounded by a composite foam that will make it puncture proof. A heart within the child will light up with LEDs and sound.
Breeze also serves as the project’s RIDE Lead, a Burning Man-mandated position whose acronym stands for “Radical Inclusion Diversity and Equity.” They’ve been tasked with making sure the crew has a notable BIPOC contingent, and this has included Indigenous, queer, Black and nonbinary workers and artists. Additionally, once on the Playa, Breeze will host podcast sessions, as well as a talk dubbed “Afro-Future Fungi and the Birth of Black Trans Eco Feminism in Art and Science Fiction.” Through the talk, Breeze will explore contributions to art, literature, media and beyond through an intersectional lens—tired, over-cited and long-dead white artists beware!
“It’s going to be about communicating the ways this work is engaging the larger conversation surrounding Black, trans and queer identities at Burning Man,” Breeze says, “and how we’re bringing new concepts to what is generally a more gentrified space.”
Mashaal-Lively, meanwhile, finally sends “Facing the Fearbeast” off in pieces and catches a well-earned rest before they head to Nevada and the work starts anew. If there’s a sense of relief to be had, though, it’ll have to wait.
“I have historical, personal evidence based on my own experience of pulling things together that seem like they’re impossible right up until they’re done and where it seems like we’re not going to make it,” they say. “I’m actively holding a lot, and I can’t let it go yet. Release and relief are not things I have access to in this moment. But it’s an active choice of faith. We’re going to keep going, I’m going to keep doing it until the point that it’s not happening. And if it gets to that point, well, I’ll keep going. There have been some hard moments; these emotional things come up that have nothing to do with this project, and I’m having to find my center—that I’m here to do it is a victory.”
“Facing the Fearbeast” will live on.
Breeze says there’s still room to incorporate certain techniques and materials that couldn’t materialize in time for its debut; Beck says there’s still much to learn and no rush to grow; Stark Raven can and will become a hub for those who want to learn, and in a more public way once she and Janowski return from Burning Man. And when the rest of the Burners exit Nevada, leaving no trace behind, the beast will return to Santa Fe, ready to evolve.
“The real crux of this piece is not just about facing the things that terrify us, but being able to see through that to what needs love and compassion,” Mashaal-Lively concludes. “It’s finding this place that’s like, ‘OK, is there a place of peace that is not inaction, but that allows access to careful thought, considered choices? When you’re at peace, you have access to a wider range of outcomes.”
Editor’s note: The scope of the efforts from Stark Raven Fabrication’s Lucas Janowski were not made properly clear in this story. Janowski is the shop’s director of fabrication, and furthermore was instrumental in building/welding the Fearbeast’s internal structure. SFR regrets the oversight.