fire fest

Maciej Mrotek in performance at a previous Telluride Fire Festival. (Photo by Nicko Ferguson)

In seven years volunteering for the Forest Service, “I helped put out a lot of fires,” Erin Ries said.

Now she’s helping to start them.

This weekend marks the Telluride Fire Festival, a celebration of all manner of conflagrations in the box canyon and Mountain Village.

And Ries, the Telluride Fire Festival’s cofounder, is, well, pretty fired up about it.

The festival is not, she said, an attempt to replicate Burning Man, the annual event in Black Rock City, Nevada, now some 32 years old. “Burning Man is not a festival,” she emphasized. “It’s a community.”

Ries would know. She’s a part of that community, having attended Burning Man nine times, and numerous other smaller “burns” besides, with her partner and the fest’s cofounder, Chris Myers.

Burning Man “inspired us to do this,” she said of founding the Telluride Fire Festival. “We saw so much art that would never be seen again. We wanted to support it, and make it accessible to others who have never seen it.”

The fest is now in its fourth year.

“My friends, you are very lucky,” Telluride Magazine editor Deb Dion Kees has written of the event. “You don’t have to trudge to the far reaches of the Nevada desert for Burning Man, dressed like you are auditioning for the sequel to ‘Blade Runner.’ You don’t even have to catch a flight to Las Vegas and buy a ticket to Cirque de Soleil. No, if you want to see the most incredible fire dancers, spinners and aerial silk acrobats in the world, all you have to do is come to Telluride and Mountain Village and check out the Telluride Fire Festival.”

This year the fest spans four days. It starts tonight (Thursday) at 5 p.m. with an opening reception for Keith D’Angelo and his exhibit, “Out of Focus: A Visual Commentary on Gun Violence,” which will be up this weekend at Slate Gray Gallery.

Like many other artists visiting from all over the U.S. this weekend, D’Angelo — who happens to live in the Telluride area — has created a work for the fest. It is a set of four letters, hewn from reclaimed wood, each of which is 7-feet tall and 5-feet wide. Together, the letters spell L-O-V-E. The sculpture was installed on the mountain across from Lift 7 late Sunday night. “Three Haul Cat operators helped us,” Ries recalled. “The letters were frickin’ huge.”

D’Angelo’s work is scheduled to burn during Fire on the Mountain, which begins at 9:30 p.m. Saturday during the fest’s signature event, Fire Ball (9 p.m. to 2 a.m. in the Great Room at the gondola’s San Sophia Station). This is D’Angelo’s second iteration of “Love,” called “Love 2.”

“So, when it goes up in flames, it’s, like, ‘Burning Love,” this reporter remarked cheekily.

“I’m actually not much of a wordplay guy,” D’Angelo replied. “It wasn’t necessarily intentional, the way this came to fruition.”

The work’s first iteration was in steel, he explained. This go-round, D’Angelo opted for salvaged wood.

“A lot of it came from historic buildings,” he said. “I took all of this stuff out of the dumpster and it’s being turned into art.”

Although Telluride Fire Fest and Burning Man may be dissimilar, they share an ethos of conservation — one of the hallmarks of “burners,” as participants in these events refer to themselves. Indeed, the group Burners Without Borders (BWB) evolved out of a desire to give back, and today performs charity work around the globe.

“Burning Man started as a very simple artistic ritual on the beach in San Francisco in 1986, and has become a global movement,” said Christopher Breedlove, BWB’s program director. “No one tried to turn it into that; that’s what it has evolved into. Today there are about 86 affiliated events around the world. The second biggest event (after Burning Man itself) is in South Africa, and the next biggest is in Israel. There’s one in Japan, and another in Spain.”

Like Ries and Myers in Telluride, “People who’ve attended Burning Man and been inspired have gone home and created their own vision.”

This weekend, in addition to Fire on the Mountain and Fire Ball, there will be free workshops in hoop juggling and “The Musicality of Motion” (among other courses) at the Wilkinson Public Library, and instruction in glass blowing and stained glass at the Ah Haa School for the Arts.  

Courses at the library are free, but you must sign up in advance.

All events are family friendly. The fest “is for all ages,” Ries said. “Parents tell me all the time, ‘We wouldn’t miss this for the world. Our kids love it.’”

And while there is fire — the fest has been dubbed the hottest in Colorado — it’s safe to attend (indeed, some sculptures encourage audience participation). For three years, former firefighter Maciej Mrotek, the owner of Dance of the Sacred Fire performance company in Carbondale, has overseen the Telluride fire dancers’ safety and scheduling. Mrotek was a firefighter years ago at Mount Shasta.

“I’ve been a fire dancer myself for 17 years,” Mrotek said. “Everyone here’s a professional,” he added. “We don’t have any beginners or intermediates. Fire dancing takes time to learn. I’m really excited to perform in the Transfer Warehouse” on Friday and Sunday evenings, for “Hot Time in the Old Town” from 5-8 p.m. “It’s the first time we’ll be in such a special venue,” Mrotek said.

The warehouse’s setting will offer about as many contrasts as you could imagine at a “burn,” and certainly more than you could find in the Black Rock Desert: cold air and incendiary installations; a feeling of being inside a building yet also outdoors; dark sky and glowing flames — all at the same time.

“Fire arts-performances are only part of this weekend,” Mrotek pointed out. “One of the most exciting things is going to be Fireside Soiree,” also on Friday in the Bob Saunders Theatre. No, there won’t be actual flames inside the Palm’s new black box performance space, but there will be creative heat.

“There’ll be aerialists and acrobatists from all over the country,” Mrotek said. “What they do is incredible. Some of the contortionists train every day. If you don’t train, you lose it.”

All this said, the weekend’s most hotly anticipated event is likely to be Fire on the Mountain, in which huge artistic installations will go up in flames, one by one, against a backdrop of snow. In addition to D’Angelo’s “Love 2,” artist Niel Ringstad will present “Tre Cime de Lavaracko,” a work inspired by three peaks in the Dolomites, and a trio of mountains in the French Alps.

“I’m fascinated by triple peaks,” Ringstad said, “and I love what they’re doing here. I love the spirit of what this is. (Organizers Erin and Chris) put their whole heart and soul into it every year, so I put mine into it.”

Michael “Oaks” Wright is one of a trio of artists who, along with collaborators Meredith Miller and Chris Turner, traveled to the fest from Arizona earlier this week to install “Pinwheel Snowflake” on the mountain. Wright takes his inspiration from Black Rock City and the San Juans in equal measure.

“I go every single year to Burning Man, as an artist and a volunteer,” Wright said. “It’s motivated me to really be creative and push my boundaries and limits as an artist and do great, big, 16-foot-tall pinwheels and bring them to a Colorado mountainside.”

What all the burning festivals have in common isn’t simply fire, Christopher Breedlove said. Nor is it the arts.

“One of the key things that happens, and has since the beginning of time, is that people stand around by a fire and tell stories,” he said. “So while the arts are important, and the burning is important, at the end of the day, you end up turning and discussing what matters to you with your neighbor. This is a community builder.”

It is also true that much of this event will, quite literally, go up in smoke. To be sure, every festival — and Telluride has dozens — packs up and ships out at the end of the weekend. By contrast, much of this one is not only fleeting; parts of it were designed to disappear.

“I wanted to do something simple that everyone could understand,” D’Angelo said of his sculpture, “Love 2,” which for the next two days, at least, still stands on the mountain. “Love is intense and fire is intense. I was very into, still am, this concept of choosing love.”

In its initial iteration, when D’Angelo’s work was sculpted from metal and the exhibit was over, “I would just shut off the propane,” he said.  

This year, “I wanted to do it again, and have a huge fire and have it be gone.”

Total eradication; everything reduced to ashes.

Nothing remains of burning love.

For a schedule of events, visit