One if by Land, Two if by Desert

"Black Rock Lighthouse Service," a father-and-son creation, is scheduled to burn on the last Sunday of the festival.


Jonny and Max Poyton and one piece of the "Black Rock Lighthouse Service."

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Jonny and Max Poynton sit side by side in the flatbed of Jonny Poynton’s truck sipping cold PBRs. Father and son reminisce like old pals about their recent to trip to South Africa for Africa Burn, a practice run, where they built and burned a mini version of their art installation for Burning Man 2016—Black Rock Lighthouse Service. The name refers to the Burning Man ground zero location of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Their first Burning Man was in 2001. Neither knew quite what to expect. “The innovation and intelligence—it blew my mind,” said Jonny Poynton. Max Poynton was 16 and a graffiti writer back then. “Burning Man changed my understanding of what art is and can be,” he said. The duo has gone to the festival every year since. Both skilled carpenters, they have helped build large art installations, including the grand temple that burns on the last night. This is a big year for Max Poynton, now 32. It’s his “half-life mark,” or his 16th year at the festival.

The idea to build a lighthouse was Jonny Poynton’s, but the design was all his son’s. An honorarium and fundraising help from their pal Tom Lee got the project rolling. For six months the pair worked every night and weekend with a crew of up to 30 volunteers to build the cluster of lighthouses, the central one reaching more than 60 feet tall and others leaning as much as 20 degrees, with stairs and observation decks all connected by a series of suspension-rope bridges à la Indiana Jones that will cover a space the size of a basketball court in the desert.

Black Rock Lighthouse Service was scheduled to burn at 1 a.m. on the last Sunday, Sept. 4, primetime at the festival. What’s the attraction to watching the art and hard work go up in flames? “It’s very Buddhist in a way,” said Jonny Poynton. “You build it. It’s your baby. And you let it go.” Max Poynton shook his head. “Watching the lighthouses burn in Africa was one of the best moments in my life,” he saids. And at Burning Man 2016 he will once again be able to look out at the crowd captivated by the burning structures and see the fire dancing in the reflection of their eyes.

Published online on Sept. 2, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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