A Fine Folly

If you are extremely fortunate, you might have someone in your life like Dave Keane.

He’s been working on big art pieces at Burning Man for many years, but you might not know his name. He’s one of those people who, as his friend and colleague Tom Lee says, “is there first thing in the morning and last at night.” And he does what he does with a minimum of drama and ego.

Even if you don’t know his name, you probably know his work. His involvement with Burning Man has been deep, even if he hasn’t taken a turn in the spotlight. One of his first projects was was the Bottlecap Gazebo, which was so much more than maybe you were expecting it to be. He went on to become the build lead on Mike Garlington’s Photo Chapel and Totem of Confession, been involved with two temples, and he’s been the build lead for assorted other pieces, including last year’s fabulous Lighthouse project.

But for 2019, there was an opening.  A close friend and associate, Tom Lee, said to Keane: “This year, YOU’VE got to do a project,” and in his typical, self-effacing way, Keane demurred,  “No, no, I’m fine.’”

But Lee pressed him. “Dave’s always been the one who’s done so much of the work, he’s done the heavy lifting. … And I said, don’t do it for yourself, do it for your wife and your kids. You’re the one going away for the whole time, and you don’t have anything that’s got your name on it. … And then he just smiled across the kitchen at me, and he was like, ‘Well, I do have this idea …’”

Dave and some of the crew

Who knows what exact combination of factors came together to persuade Keane to launch The Folly? But now here we are, and people are simply amazed at what he and his Folly Builders have accomplished at the far end of the playa. In the space of, oh, what seems like maybe 24 hours, a collection of wooden huts strewn all over the playa floor have been magically transformed into The Folly.

From the group’s site:  “The Folly of Man has been described as the state or quality of being foolish; lack of understanding or sense. It is said that if a person commits no follies, they lose their wits through weariness. … In architecture, a folly is a building constructed primarily for decoration, but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose, or of such extravagant appearance that it transcends the range of garden ornaments usually associated with the class of buildings to which it belongs.”

Keane’s initial premise for the piece was characteristically modest: “I wanted to build a big barn and have 50 kegs of beer and a load of Irish musicians,” he says on his fundraising page here . (By the way, that fundraising campaign is still active, and it could really use your help. Even though the project received an honorarium from Burning Man, that won’t cover anything close to the actual cost. People go broke doing art at Burning Man; won’t you help stop that from happening?)

Anyway, Lee said Keane wanted to make “a builder’s project, not an architect’s project. … He wanted to make boxes that they could build very quickly, not hexagons that lean in weird directions, and Keane said, ‘We’re going to make it from all the stuff I’ve got lying around, not buy stuff.’”

They did wind up buying some new lumber for its structural integrity, but to outward appearances, everything looks old and weathered, like it has history behind it. When you wander through the space, you can almost feel the various presences and energies, from the old homes, the old buildings and barns, all the places that the wood has come from. “We got it from everywhere,” Courtney says, “builders and contractors, individuals, just everywhere.”

It’s all been pieced together in artful, whimsical ways, so much so that everywhere your eye falls, there’s another delight to behold.

And that’s the point: The Folly is not a thing to be admired from afar, it’s a performance space, a gathering spot. There’s a stage inside, and Prince Paul has put together a charming and eclectic lineup of shows — singing, theatrics, circus arts, spoken word, even the Black Rock Philharmonic.

The narrative is that The Folly was a fishing village, but then the fish died, and then it became a mining town, but then that failed, too. And this is what remains. There’s a giant ship’s mast, hundreds of feet of railings, secret passageways, stairs  leading everywhere.

Also inside, rooms are filled with curiosities and displays, which Kai Dalgleish  helped put together. Here’s the clerk’s office, with historical Burning Man maps, and here’s the library, and here’s a room of antique tools, here’s a sanctuary space devoted to different emotions and feelings. And here’s a wall with fishing nets and nails hung so that you can hang your own fabric ribbons with wishes and hopes, and here’s a Victorian sitting room for entertaining guests.

You could get lost for hours, and we’re guessing that Dave and the Folly Builders and all the contributing artists hope you do, too.

Here are some more pics:

Scooter in one of the towers
One of many intricate wood panels found all over the structure

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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