Born in 2002, Homer’s annual Burning Basket impermanent art celebration holds its 16th birthday with “Radiate,” the basket now under creation at Mariner Park.
Baskets — even the artistic kind — can’t drive. While they might burn beautifully and serve as objects of remembrance and unburdening, they don’t fall under federal child labor laws. But turning 16 also has another meaning.
“Sweet 16 is coming of age, you know,” said Burning Basket founder and facilitator Mavis Muller on Tuesday as she took a break from building this year’s basket.
In that spirit, here are 16 cool things about the Burning Basket:
1) The event itself
“Radiate” will be given to the community starting at 1 p.m. Sunday. People can visit and interact with the basket by posting notes on it, decorating it and even putting mementos in the basket. A fall ritual, it’s a family-friendly, no-alcohol, no-dogs event. As the sun begins to set, the energy builds, the drummers ramp up their rhythms and Muller does a short talk. At sundown the basket is lit and the art transformed into heat and light.
2) How it all begin
In 2004, Muller received a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts to travel to Nevada and work with impermanent art creator David Best at the Burning Man festival. When Muller returned to Homer she did a slide show about her work.
“The immediate passionate response from our community — especially Eva (Saulitis) — was, ‘Let’s do something here,’” Muller said.
A basketmaker, Muller decided to make a large, 10-to-20-foot wide basket. With the help of Saulitis, a Homer poet, scientist and writer who died in 2016, Muller gathered materials, recruited volunteers and built the first basket, “Adieu.”
3) It takes a village — and a week — to build a basket
Burning Basket Build Week starts the Sunday before the burn. Matt Steffy from the Homer Parks and Recreation Department moves boulders at Mariner Park to mark out the space for the basket and the labyrinth. Muller sets up a work tent. Night watch people park their motorhomes and vans at the build site. People bring in materials. In more or less the same location, Muller and crew set the central foundation pole and the surrounding base poles, and they start weaving the basket. The build continues noon-8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday, with a final push over the weekend, so there’s still time to volunteer.
4) The names
Muller says the names of the baskets read together sound like poetry: Adieu, Renew, Reflect, Impart, Surpass, Re-member/Sustain, Imagine, Together, Inspire, Enjoy, Grow, Reach, Expand, Shine, Dream and Radiate. How does Muller come up with the names?
“I go down the rabbit hole of words,” she said.
She starts with about 20 and narrows them down. All but “Together” have been verbs.
“They encourage action. They encourage movement,” Muller said. “But it also gives a way to introduce itself.”
The names often inspire people to write notes and sayings, like last year when people wrote “Dream of levity, dream tolerance, dream of peace, dream forgiveness” or “our team work makes the dream work.”
5) The materials
Except for nails, wire and screw to hold the support structure together, the basket consists of all natural, all burnable materials. This year, city workers left alder branches cut from trail clearing at Mariner Park. People bring clumps of bluejoint grass, nettles and fireweed. Devil’s club leaves often adorn the skirt of the basket. One year a flower grower donated peonies. Material has to be in the right shape to be worked.
“There’s a certain way the materials let you know when theyre ready to be used,” Muller said.
6) The volunteers
The first year, Saulitis was Muller’s main help. That year, artist Char Jump watched from her car as “Adieu” was being woven.
“The second year, she got out of her car,” Muller said. The core group became her, Saulitis and Jump, “My right arm and my left arm,” Muller said.
After Saulitis died, Jump became her main assistant, but this year she’s out of commission as she recovers from surgery. Volunteers tend to come in a flurry, Muller said, but they show up.
After a long, hot and dry summer, with major wildfires burning around Southcentral Alaska, the idea of having what essentially is an artistic bonfire might have given some pause. This week, the Alaska Division of Forestry lifted a burn suspension, meaning bonfires more than 3-feet in diameter could be held with a burn permit.
“There is nothing at the state standpoint that will prevent this from happening as of today,” said Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko, on Tuesday.
The Burning Basket has a burn permit and is in the process of getting a special-event permit from the city. Kirko plans to have firefighters and EMTs with a truck and ambulance at site on Sunday. That will allow them to monitor the burn and also be by gear and vehicles if called someplace else.
“The thought I had with us doing this, first off we want to show we support our local artists,” Kirko said.”It’s an historic event. I think it’s awesome we have these things.”
Firefighters also will be on hand to keep spectators out of harm’s way.
“Were not going to be there to shut it down,” Kirko said. “We’re there as a presence of safety.”
8) The night watch
In 2015 after a vandal first tried to burn the basket early and then a night later tore the basket apart by dragging it loose with a chain attached to his truck, volunteers have camped out at the basket as a Night Watch.
“There are people showing up gladly as part of their contribution to stay out here and keep an eye on it,” Muller said.
9) Fireweed Academy helps
Another annual tradition is visits from students at Little and Big Fireweed Academy, a Homer charter school. The little kids talk about the name of the basket and meanings of the word. The big kids gather materials enhance the labyrinth.
“They love to come and build little magical tripod sculptures they find on the beach,” Muller said.
10) It’s not just a basket but the labyrinth
Near the basket Muller designs a labyrinth, a circular path that goes into a center and then back out. People are encouraged to walk the labyrinth and think of the meaning of the basket, burdens they might want to shed, and people and events they might want to remember.
11) Drumming circle
A longtime part of the basket has been a drum circle, where people gather by a campfire and beat out rhythms on drums and other percussion instruments.
“Pretty much every time we play until we can’t play any more,” said John Sheipe, a longtime drummer who plays with partner Beth Carroll. “It’s pretty intense to get into the space.”
Sheipe said a core group of drummers show up every year. The stronger drummers lay down a beat others can hold.
“It’s something solid they can flow with that creates harmony,” Sheipe said. “I think it lifts up the hearts a bit, too. It adds a great ambience if anything.”
12) Fire spinners and dancers and hoopers
In the early days, fire spinners would twirl burning torches on chains, an art called poi. As the fire burns down, people get up and dance, hoop and, in a modern version of poi, spin glowsticks on strings.
13) Notes people leave
Muller puts out folded origami cranes or scraps of paper for people to write notes on and put on the basket. Some people fold the notes and put them in boxes placed in the basket to collect them. Part of the experience is looking at the basket and reading what people have written.
14) Weird things found in the ash debris
Sometimes people leave strange things in the basket. After her mastectomy from breast cancer, Katie Kennedy put all her bras in the basket. One year someone left a pocket watch. Another time Muller found a tin of human ashes; she later buried it.
15) Van girls and visitors
At her house, Muller has several rental cabins. Sometimes she offers renters free rent if they volunteer on the basket. One coveted position is Van Girl, usually a woman who stays in a vintage VW van at Muller’s place as her summer assistant, like Mira Klein from 2018.
16) Homer isn’t the only place to build baskets
Though Homer and Muller started the tradition of burning baskets, thanks to Muller and an occasional grant, she has taken the idea elsewhere in Alaska, to Hawaii, the Lower 48 states and Spain. Twenty have been built in Alaska, including “Radiate,” and 22 elsewhere, making this year’s basket 42. As every Douglas Adams fan knows, that’s also the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything.