Burning Man aficionados have long been familiar with the Sunbrothers' sculptures: solar-powered roses, pea vines, cornstalks, and other kinds of plants that soak up the sun during the day, then emit a colorful glow all night. Dennis Baum and Kevin Gauna, the masterminds behind the glowing flowers, are still getting used to their growing reputation outside of the Burning Man world. But their notoriety is no accident -- it's just what happens when you combine incredible artwork with a little grassroots-publicity savvy.
Their biggest annual event has turned out to be a Valentine's Day party. Last year's attendance clocked in at well over four hundred, so this time they're spreading it out over three days. Admission is free; part of their West Oakland studio space will be set up with jazz and wine and cheese, and the adjoining shop will hold welding and glassblowing demonstrations. Besides two dozen brand-new Sunbrothers rose sculptures, all of which are for sale, you'll be able to peruse artworks by Therm, Light Fantastic, Grant Irish, Joe Rut, Dan Wooden, and Kathleen Fernald, and enter a raffle to win a free sculpture.
"It's great to have people over to the shop," says Gauna. "All of the electrical components we use are custom-made: circuits, battery packs, connectors. ... In the finished works we try to hide everything and make it very subtle and elegant, so this is an opportunity to show people all the gazillion different parts that go into each sculpture."
The Sunbrothers do all their own welding, glassblowing, and circuitry, constructing each plant totally by hand, glass petal by glass petal, copper leaf by copper leaf. The work is like an escape, and a relief, from our everyday mass-produced culture -- a combination of old-fashioned blood-sweat-and-tears manual labor, industrial materials, and digital-age electronics. They make about twelve different rose varieties, with names that sound like a horse-racing form: Rita, Peppermint Stick, Jack Frost, Liberace. The plants can live indoors or out, as long as the solar panels receive direct sunlight during the day, and a single day-long charge lasts for up to two or three nights. The rechargeable batteries stay good for years before needing replacement.
Even more impressive is the fact that the Sunbrothers are totally self-taught. "With the circuit-board stuff," Baum remembers, "Kevin literally went down to Radio Shack and got the "So you want to learn electronics?' book with the smiley-face resister on the cover." Glassblowing presented an even longer and more arduous learning process, but watching Gauna light up the torch and deftly start work on a new rose shows how accomplished they've become. If you've never seen glassblowing live and in person before, it's worth the trip to their soiree for that alone. Jeremy Lutes of Light Fantastic has of late become a third Sunbrother, helping them make the leap from homemade circuit boards to the digital kind, which have the advantage of being programmable and capable of more complex light patterns.
"People really respond favorably to the solar aspect," Gauna reflects. "It's an attractive concept. Every day, thousands and thousands of watts are raining down, and we're able to harvest some of that and use it." The Sunbrothers' show runs Thursday 13 (6-10 p.m.), Friday 14 (6-10 p.m.), and Saturday 15 (noon-10 p.m.), at Sunbrothers Studio, 2323 Magnolia St., Oakland. Free. Info: www.sunbrothers.com
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