Burning Basket Project: Art of Community Wellbeing, Learning and Activism

For almost two decades, Burning Man Project has supported dozens of artists who spark community engagement through the creation of interactive community-based art. From Kiev to Zanzibar, Oakland to Bangalore, our Global Art Grantees are a remarkable cohort. Naturally, we like to stay in touch and follow their adventurous tales and trajectories.

Alaskan artist Mavis Muller has previously received two Global Art Grants to support her creative vision and mission. These grants helped her expand a collaborative, community art project beyond her hometown of Homer, Alaska, and share her message about honoring the watersheds and ocean that connect Pacific Rim communities and ecosystems.

A self-professed ‘artivist’ and community leader, Mavis recently brought us up to speed on her purpose and journey as an art instigator and co-creator of large-scale, public participatory, impermanent art.

“What I hope to do with my art is to bring people closer to something,” Mavis says. “Now more than ever we need the language of art, the language without words that takes us away from our thinking minds to be guided by the compass of our intuitive heart.”

Mavis is an internationally known artist and a force of nature in Homer, where for 16 years she has led the annual Burning Basket. The end-of-summer event brings locals and visitors together in a celebration of community, mother nature, releasing intentions… and, of course, fire.

“It’s been fun to witness how arts and culture are powerful tools for collaborative learning, community well-being, mobilization and activism.”

In 2018, Homer’s Mayor Zak recognized Mavis and the Burning Basket Project with a Proclamation of Recognition for its contribution as a civic function and autumnal tradition of the city’s artistic and cultural life.

“The annual Burning Basket has become a popular event here in Homer,” Mavis says. “Some look at it less like going to an art event and more like keeping an appointment. It’s a yearly opportunity to release burdens of the heart and to say goodbye to loved ones.”

It’s an opportunity she has helped create for other Pacific Rim communities too. Mavis has now led a total of 42 Burning Basket enactments in and outside Alaska, bringing this participatory art and collaborative fire ritual to coastal and often remote communities.

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Lessons in Impermanence with the Temple Crew

Sound familiar? Sure, Mavis is a Burner. She was part of the team that worked with David Best on the 2004 Temple of Stars. In 2013 she was also a lead artist with Maui’s Source crew, which built one of 24 Regional effigies that were burned in Black Rock City as part of the Circle Of Regional Effigies (CORE).

Mavis’ 2004 journey to Black Rock City was funded by a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

“My experience was not so much about exploring the comings and goings of Burning Man,” she says. “It was to do a mentorship with David Best; I gave it all of my focus, because I wanted to absorb and understand this notion of impermanent art, to work with a master and with a crew of very capable people.”

Through working with David and his team on the Temple of Stars, Mavis discovered the power and immediacy of creating large-scale, participatory works of art. And she was hooked. When she shared the story of her Temple of Stars experience with her home community, people began to rally for their own impermanent art ritual.

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Immediacy, Collaborative Art and Remote Communities

“It was the immediate, passionate response from my community to enact a similar experience of community collaborative impermanent art that kicked off the beginning of the Burning Basket Project,” Mavis remembers.

“As a basket maker, I have had many years of experience of practicing ancient techniques and celebrating the art form in a more contemporary way. So when people were approaching me about wanting to do a large outdoor sculpture, my first impulse was to use the art form that I had been practicing for years, to just bump it up in size and scale.”

The burning of the Temple of Stars at Black Rock City took place under a full moon. Thirty days later, on the next full moon, the first Burning Basket was ignited on a beach at Homer.

“At first I thought this was a one-time thing for me,” Mavis says. “But even before the coals were cold, people were coming up to me saying ‘I want to help next year,’ I thought it was the flowering fruit. But looking back, I see it was only the seed.”

Mavis surveys the first Burning Basket on a beach at Homer, Alaska, 2004. The piece included a mobile made with scraps from the Temple of Stars

First Grant — Extending Burning Baskets to Pacific Rim Towns

After completing 10 Burning Basket enactments, Mavis received her first Global Art Grant from Burning Man Project in 2007.

Global Art Grants support artists and makers who are creating outside the annual event in Black Rock City. In alignment with our mission to facilitate and extend the culture of Burning Man into the larger world, these grants fund publicly accessible civic art that invites participants to touch, hear, experience and engage with an art piece as a means of exploration, education and self-discovery.

Mavis’ Burning Basket Project presented itself as a perfect Global Art Grant candidate. Her interactive baskets delightfully function as both creation and community ritual. With each build, Mavis’ process is emblematic of the cultural values Burning Man Project seeks to promote.

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Mavis guides the community through materials gathering and the construction of the monumental baskets. She then invites the public to add personal touches of intention, and ultimately the piece is ignited as a performance of fire art. The works serve as catalysts for releasing personal intentions and also in remembrance of departed loved ones.

The 2007 grant helped Mavis extend her collaborative basket workshops and fire-art performances from Alaska to the Big Island and Maui, Hawaii — to add other coastal Pacific communities to the project’s artistic journey, and to celebrate a shared body of water and the migratory humpback whales.

Second Grant — Weaving Watersheds Across Alaska

The Weaving Watershed tour

In 2015, Mavis received a second Global Art Grant to help launch her Weaving Watersheds project, an extended series of heart-shaped basket sculptures co-created and burned in eight different communities across Alaska and into Washington state.

Fueled by the theme of connecting communities, the flaming hearts illustrated how salmon and watersheds connect Alaskan communities to one another. Her journey followed the path of Alaska’s watersheds, from the northern interior of Fairbanks, to the Southernmost Alaskan town of Ketchikan, then crossing a border to Port Townsend, Washington.

“Watersheds have no borders; it’s just water touching other water,” Mavis says.

In each community all were invited to tie a ribbon on the woven heart in solidarity for the protection and restoration of all waterways of Earth. The collective intentions were then released in sparks and flames.

As Mavis travelled to each location, she also brought plant materials and heart-shaped rocks from previous locations. “To symbolize a celebration of water bodies that connect us as communities and as a small world, for the wild Alaska salmon that sustains us, the fisheries we depend on, for the water and everything that lives on or in it,” she says.

“It’s been fun to witness how arts and culture are powerful tools for collaborative learning, community well-being, mobilization and activism.”

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Celebrating Migrations, Shared Connections and Community

In March 2020 Mavis extended her Weaving Watersheds journey to Santa Catalina, a village on the Pacific coast of Panama. Here she collaborated with the community to create the 42nd installation in the Burning Basket Project, and the 11th interactive flaming heart in her Weaving Watersheds tour.

“I went there to celebrate the Pacific ocean that we share between Alaska and Panama and the migratory Pacific humpback whales,” Mavis says. “The project took on a broader statement when the coronavirus pandemic became foremost on people’s minds and the basket itself then took on some of that energy.”

Mavis found herself working in solitary quarantine in the courtyard of her locked-down hotel. Public beaches were closed. It became apparent that this flaming heart was not going to be burned in a collective ritual, but in a private one.

Mavis encouraged participants to leave their messages at the hotel gate or send them via email. She added them, one by one to the basket and then she and three others carried it down a steep bluff to a section of beach below the jungle hotel where it was privately ignited.

Click on gallery to see photo details

“That enactment was quite different than the others in the series. The others have attracted many people to gather around it to become part of the installation at the final fiery conclusion. It was unique in the fact that this basket burned in quarantine. The intimate few in attendance were holding space for the other residents of the village who couldn’t be there.”

There is a mythic element to the ritual of building an effigy from nature, imbuing the work with intentions, and gathering the community to share and support each other as we release these intentions. We’ve been doing it for millennia.

In her creations, Mavis taps into the archetypal thread behind the universal human need to create, and to tell stories about those creations.

“I have been thinking about the making of myth. What is it that we as a society are doing to create myth for the modern world? Joseph Campbell referred to myth as making sense in a senseless world, as a narrative that gives significance to our existence,” Mavis says.

“As I reflect now over the 42 burning enactments I have led, each one of them carries its own thread of a story of celebrating nature, building community and empowering individuals through collaborative creativity and letting go. Together we prepare for opportunity disguised as loss. Something has ended.  Something has begun.”


Top photo: DREAM — Burning Basket by Mavis Muller, Homer, Alaska, 2018 (Photo by Don Pitcher)

About the author: Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger (a.k.a. kbot) began her Burning Man journey in 2004 when she touched down in Black Rock City with a handful of disoriented Canadians. Since that early misadventure, she has shared in the wondrous emergence of Montreal’s Regional Burning Man community. A Black Rock Ranger and occasional theme camp organizer, Kirsten spends her summers bounding between Regionals in Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US. Her biggest adventure yet involves joining the Burning Man Project Communications team, where she identifies storytelling opportunities and co-creates the global nonprofit’s communication strategies.

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