Meet the Artist: Duane Flatmo on Tin Pan Dragon for No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man”

  • Duane Flatmo discusses his work Tin Pan Dragon, a 23-foot animated sculpture built of steel tubing and recycled aluminum, in the exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery.

    DUANE FLATMO: Hi, my name is Duane Flatmo. I'm an artist building sculptures out at Burning Man. I have a piece that’s going to be showing here at the Renwick Gallery as part of "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man."

    What you’re looking at here is a machine I call the "Tin Pan Dragon." It’s about a twenty-three-foot dragon that is pedal-powered, so four people can pedal it. It has controls that run the head and it’s totally animated. Then it also shoots fire. When the fire comes together with all the motion, that’s when this thing really comes alive. The light from the fire ends up giving a really nice glow at night when we go out to Burning Man.

    Most of it is built out of steel tubing for the structure of the machine and the armature. To get in and out of the machine, this whole piece just leans down and that’s what allows you to jump inside the front of the machine. The two people in the back have doors. The doors, they can just open like this and jump in the back. Kids love dragons. People love dragons.

    There have been some really big dragon machines made out at Burning Man that are just off the charts huge. This used to be a carp, a big fish. This head was not here, and it was a big fish head that was out front, so I absorbed some of the pieces. I take off some sculptures, I absorb them back into the other sculptures.

    I tend to do stuff a little bit funky and kind of old school. I like rusty metal; I like junk, using old junk in reuse. Instead of going down and buying brand new muffin tins, you can find them. When I go up to Seattle or I go to a big city, I’ll just go down one of those main streets where you can hit like ten different thrift stores, and I’ll come back to California with a whole truckload of new aluminum.

    I would like people to be inspired. I like them to know that all this stuff is stuff that you can just find in Anytown, USA. It’s an honor to come out here. I’ve never been to Washington. What’s fun is I look at the journey of all these pieces that were in little places that all came together in my little shop in Eureka. They went to Burning Man, and now they came to the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian. I had to call my mom and say, “You won’t believe where this junk ended up.” Of course, making junk into beautiful stuff is really the best. That’s really the winning part of the whole thing is having someone just look and say, “Gosh, I can buy all that stuff at the hardware store.”