The Leonardo Gallery


Created by Syd Klinge and Charlie Smith
Text by Syd Klinge

© Syd Klinge and Charlie Smith. Photo © Holly Kreuter.

I imagined walking alone through a cold desert night approaching a great, burning heart, taller than any of us who converged upon it. I could see faces emerging from the darkness, illuminated by the incandescent steel and by plumes of fire that bled into the sky from open arteries atop this raging furnace. Soon after hatching the idea of building a giant metal heart to burn in the Nevada desert, I collaborated with my friend Charlie Smith [1] to create this vision. Our artwork would be made of steel and called Hearth, not only to reflect the spirit of the fire, but also to suggest a vital place of gathering.

To maintain structural integrity in the piece as the fire heated it to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, we fashioned stainless-steel heat shields around key structural elements such as the legs, base armature and peripheral upright supports. This allowed cooler air drawn by the draft of the fire to circulate around them. We also used heavier-gauge steel at the base than at the top, which kept the center of gravity low for increased stability

Various design aspects of the project evolved during construction. In our first drawings, the hearth was only 8 or 10 ft tall and fueled by propane. When we started building, the overall scale of the Hearth increased dramatically. By the time we had finished, it measured nearly 20 ft in height and had a massive internal volume. Soon it became clear that to make a steel structure of this size glow red and orange would be prohibitively expensive and require having a massive liquid propane fuel dump out by the piece. The switch to wood as the sole fuel worked out better in every way. By burning a cord and a half of wood at a time, enough heat was developed to bring all of Hearth to brilliant shades of orange and yellow.

Also, the necessity of loading all of the wood by hand spawned an opportunity for interactivity. Late at night, when the first load of wood had been reduced to embers, we would open the hidden door on the side of Hearth, and people could take turns tossing logs into the fire. Sometimes a bucket-brigade line would form between the woodpile and the open door, so that everyone touched each log before it was committed to the flames. One night in particular I remember every log receiving a name. Each person would pass on the name of the log as they handed it off to the next person in line.

I always wanted the heart to "beat" in some way. At first it seemed the best way to achieve this would be through cyclic variation in the flow of propane, possibly actuated by the pneumatic flow of the fuel itself. When propane was abandoned as the fuel, the bellows idea was born. A 6-ft-long set of bellows positioned at a distance pumped air via a buried pipe directly into Hearth. Now people could give this heart a beat of their own.

The shared experience of building Hearth and allowing the audience to help operate it turned out to be more potent than anything we might have imagined. During my previous years at Burning Man, I was gifted with a wealth of kindness and generosity from the people there, and I was truly inspired by the seemingly boundless creativity that flourished when people opened their hearts to one another. It was both Charlie's and my hope with this piece to celebrate that spirit.

Syd Klinge, syd at playahearth dot com
Charlie Smith,

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Updated 13 April 2007.

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