Senior Burning Man Project Advisor Megan Miller sat down with sculptor Kate Raudenbush, who has been creating art for Black Rock City since 2004. The two discussed Kate’s newest piece, Incanto, five intricately designed, allegorical sculptures accompanied by poetry by Sha Michele. You can find Incanto at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, through this Sunday, October 29th.
(Picture above: Sha Michele (left), Kate Raudenbush (right))
Tell us about Incanto and how it came to be.
The curator of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (LGBG) reached out to me in 2019 and said, “I’ve been following your work at Burning Man and beyond for years. I love it and I think you could make some really meaningful artwork in the garden. What do you think?” It was a dream commission. Then the pandemic hit, the show was delayed to 2023, and I had lots of time to re-conceptualize my intentions for the show.
How did that extended reflection period shape the piece?
During the pandemic we all experienced how nature was seen as a healing force. Outside was the safe space that everyone tuned into. I asked myself: How do I meet the healing energy of the garden with a sculptural presence? My answer was to resonate with the healing environment and design a show with emotional depth.
Each sculpture of Incanto emerges out of the garden landscape in dialogue with a poem. The five artworks evolved from existential themes I felt during the pandemic:
- Witnessing humanity’s imbalance with nature;
- Finding healing through connection with others;
- Experiencing how struggle shapes and evolves our identity;
- Discovering a grounding connection to spirit; and
- Appreciating the present moment on our journey of life.
Thematically each of the sculptures contains a portal, a powerful symbol of transformation. Most of them are allegorical spaces that open up to visitor participation. The word “incanto” informs the word “incantation,” which is like a magic spell, or a calling in of energy, or intention. And then “canto” is a section of an epic poem. So Incanto is an intentional journey through a sculptural epic poem.
Can you describe the gardens so we can imagine the landscape?
It’s a classic botanical garden. There’s a Victorian style conservatory of glass measuring 11,000 square feet, 63’ tall. The rest of the grounds include a sunken garden with a fountain, an amazing formal rose garden, a healing plants garden, a conifer garden, a lake, hidden paths, and a Japanese garden. It’s 50 acres now and they’ll begin a 100-acre expansion next year. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to make art for this vast, verdant, utopian Eden.
Working with the garden staff has been a dream because they were in alignment with my intentions to create a show about self-reflection and healing. They were also very enthusiastic about my desire to expand Incanto and create thematic events. I wanted to include and activate the Richmond creative community, so we created an alliance with one of Richmond’s most groundbreaking galleries, “Gallery 5” (they are no strangers to Burning Man!). They produced G5 community events at LGBG every month. They engaged fire spinners, and DJs from the Party Liberation Foundation along with Richmond-based musicians, poets, yoga teachers, meditation instructors and sound healers.
What does this exhibition mean in terms of your path as an artist?
The exhibition showed me that I want to make more art for botanical gardens. I really enjoyed working with the LGBG Horticulture team to integrate the art into the landscape. In terms of materials, I made a departure; I created the whole show in mixed metals: Corten steel, hammered stainless steel, brass, bronze, aluminum. The colors were all natural patinas, with almost no painted or powder-coated metal. I also included an etched glass altar, reclaimed NYC water tower redwood bench, and 3D-printed resin spear tips.
This time I embraced allowing myself to express deeper emotions within the intentions of my artworks. It was a profound experience to make portals to honor my own healing and share it with others. I want to do more of that.
Tell me about your collaboration with Sha Michele and how that relationship came into being.
I met Sha at Burning Man in 2000. We worked on my very first sculpture called Observer / Observed in 2004, and later, Star Seed in 2012. But we really came together during the pandemic because we were neighbors and we were talking about life and synthesizing what we were going through. I was trying to form Incanto and I was having deep conversations about the symbolic function of the artworks, with her as a sounding board. She resonated with the ideas very clearly. I realized Incanto could become a dialogue of two art forms: sculpture and poetry. I pitched that idea to the Garden, and they loved it. Once I had a very clear idea of what the sculptures were, Sha would write a poem in resonance with it.
Can you talk about the role art can play in creating a better world?
The philosopher and renowned psychonaut Terrence McKenna said, “Art redeems the idea that man is good.” How can art be used to evolve our consciousness? How can an artwork serve as a healing force? When I make my art, I am in service to that idea.
For the longest time, I have been obsessed with portals and thresholds and sacred spaces. I’ve noticed over time that almost every large artwork I have made is a container of some sort, a refuge. My Incanto sculpture Breaking Point is a threshold of illuminated arrows in the shape of a human silhouette, to remind us of our courage. It presents a dare to evolve our identities through the catalyst of struggle. Source Code points to the precarious way human progress has taken for granted our Earth’s natural resources. Seed of Self is a meditation refuge.
Society needs dreamers and creators, those who can both make art as a cautionary tale, and envision a way forward, to inspire us to create a new way of human being. I think artists play a critical role as mirrors to society, healers, instigators, rebels, social alchemists, and yes, even as prophets – showing us how our society is devolving… or how it could metamorphose. Look, this is where we’re at right now: evolve, or perish. If no one creates a tangible vision for a better world, it’s harder to evolve towards that goal.
When did you first go to Burning Man and when did you start creating art for the event?
I first attended Burning Man in 1999 on a whim, with almost no planning. It utterly blew my mind open with its unbridled creativity. I was a photographer in New York, so my instinct was to try to document what I experienced, but trying to capture it drove me mad. You’re supposed to experience it. To feel it. You’re not the observer, you’re the participant. This is at the core of the phrase “No Spectators,” and the principle of Immediacy: You are living life fully in the Now. Put the damn camera down!!
So at Burning Man, instead of documenting my experience, I realized I wanted to create an experience. That’s what led to my first sculpture, Observer / Observed in 2004. There’s something really extraordinary about being a ship on that sea of creativity, and building a vessel to hold other people’s joyful experiences.
In the 20 years since you started creating art for Burning Man, you have built and shared works across the world. What have you learned about yourself along the way?
I’ve learned that I’m very mission-driven in terms of why I make my artwork; I have to have a purpose and a theme, as if the sculpture itself were a thought-form, or incantation. I feel like Larry [Harvey] instilled that in me. He was that Muse of Fire.
I’ve learned that having the right people by my side as a team is the most joyous part of making the artwork. I’ve learned that my style could translate to both wall sculpture and stages for music festivals. I’ve learned that there are endless things to learn, and as I keep seeking and experimenting and remaining open to new ideas and collaborators, I will keep evolving. I have learned that creativity loves courage.
What are you working on next?
I am planning to tour Incanto to other gardens, and continue making privately and publicly commissioned sculptures. Currently, I’m installing Star Seed (originally created for Burning Man in 2012) at this great place called Akera in the Catskills Mountains in New York. It’s a brand new creative retreat center and event space. I’m so psyched to share this 42’-tall sculpture again! I also have a brand new, privately commissioned sculpture that I have kept secret for years that will be finally installed this fall in Long Island, New York.
What do people need to know about experiencing Incanto?
This is the last weekend to see Incanto at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. I highly recommend seeing it just before and after sunset during the extended evening viewing hours (5-9pm). There’s going to be a big harvest festival on Saturday, October 28th! I will be there with my whole crew at our closing reception. We hope to see you there!
Cover image of Ancestors Night sculpture of “Incanto” by Kate Raudenbush, 2023 (Photo courtesy of the artist)