American Steel Studios, located on the west end of Oakland, California, is a self-described community of art, innovation, and industry. Formerly, the mammoth complex was home to steel manufacturing, now it has since been reconstituted as studios for artists and craftsmen. As space dwindles in California, here, it is easy to come by. The studios swarm with esoteric personalities and the unleashing power of expression; welding torches hiss, bending metal groans, the howl of power saws ricochet across the chambers of steel.
For many of the artists here, days now bring sleepless nights as the annual Burning Man Festival draws near. When completed, their projects will make the journey from American Steel Studios to the playa of Black Rock City in Nevada, site of Burning Man, where tens of thousands of “burners” from across the world will see, engage and interact with their sculptures. For one artist at American Steel, his Burning Man installation will receive more attention than most. You might say, it’ll be at the center of it all.
Andrew Johnstone is a difficult guy to lay words to. Immensely charming and engaging, this man from Moffat, Scotland is a walking screenplay of self-expression, profound adventure and social justice. He’s an artist, muralist, 3D computer designer and enthusiastic geomapper. He’s founder of the non-profit, Big Picture Project, an organization that mentors at-risks youths whose expressive outlet is graffiti, reforming their artistic skills into a positive outlet. His days are a relentless pursuit of making art and making art happen for the San Francisco Bay Area community.
All that, however, leads up to what is one of the coolest side gigs on the planet: since 2005, serving as lead designer of Burning Man’s iconic Man and Man base, the physical and spiritual nexus of the festival.
“I was a spectator for 10 minutes,” Johnstone reflects on his first Burning Man experience. Johnstone’s door to Burning Man was opened by his mentor, Rod Garrett, the original architect and designer of Burning Man City and the Man. Garrett and Johnstone’s relationship grew incredibly close, into what he calls a “surrogate father”.
Garrett, a remarkable and acclaimed talent in his own right, passed away in 2011, since then Johnstone has assumed the responsibility of design steward of The Man, caretaking Garrett’s contributions and vision. “Things in life take interesting paths. This isn’t a job you find on Craigslist, right? You’re a pinball and life keeps hitting the flippers,” says Johnstone. “Next thing I knew, I was designing the world’s most expensive bonfire”.
At Johnstone’s studio at American Steel, the playa desert feels alive; his playa bike aching for the bleached dust of Black Rock, his custom-edition Merrell boots hungry to work.
Johnstone refines, problem-solves his final designs of the Man base, as the construction team fabricates the massive project across the bay in San Francisco, ultimately to be assembled at the playa. “Radical self-expression is what Burning Man is all about––people giving of themselves. It’s a human right. It’s in our DNA.” Listening to Johnstone talk, you feel the art, but you also feel the fight––the fight for expression. “I’ve always been attracted to the eye of the hurricane––I want to be in the middle of it all”. Has he ever. As one of the original Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors, in 1978, Johnstone blocked pipelines in the north Atlantic before serving two world tours for Greenpeace. He was jailed for 5 days in France, then deported. All this before he turned 21.
Johnstone’s father was the mayor of the small town in Scotland where he grew up – and in many ways, Johnstone serves as mayor of American Steel Studios. He walks the maze of pathways, visiting with fellow artists, talking art, collaborating on engineering issues, project funding––lending knowledge as if it’s water. Here, every voice also has an ear. For all the stunning exhibitions and borderless experience that Burning Man has become, these studios––this tribe of working artists––offer an intimate glimpse into the seeds of self-expression that eventually sprout from the floor of a desert every year.
2018 will mark the first time Burning Man will be without its founder, Larry Harvey, who passed away this year at the age of 70. It will be an emotional festival for Johnstone and its global community of organizers and burners. “Maybe this is a good time to start thinking about stepping aside and letting someone else carry on,” Johnstone speaks in a rare moment of vincibility. However, you don’t have to travel deep inside this man to know he’ll be back. Like anything that burns, the time does come when you have to let go, but, for Andrew, the fire won’t let him.