She thought he was kidding.

"He just said one day, and I didn't believe him, he said, 'I want to build a rocket ship,'"‰" Cate Boadway said of her friend Sean Orlando. "This was about a year, year-and-a-half ago, and I thought he was kidding. He was not kidding."

Boadway, a local artist, is now working with Orlando on a 40-foot-tall piece of industrial art titled "The Raygun Gothic Rocketship."

Boadway is part of a more than 60-person team of artists, scientists, engineers, and builders creating a sculpture resembling a rocket ship that will premiere at this year's Burning Man Project, the annual gathering in Nevada's Black Rock Desert that focuses on radical self reliance and large-scale installation art.

This year's festival will begin Monday and run through Sept. 7, with the Oakland artists unveiling their creation in a 15-minute spectacle Sept. 4.

Led by Orlando and fellow artists Nathaniel Taylor and David Shulman, the rocket ship idea was conceived in napkin drawings and has a retro aesthetic meant to conjure a time when space travel was still a fantasy.

The artists wanted to "focus on a time of pre-space travel, when humans still imagined themselves living and traveling through space "... the future of the human species was very romanticized," Orlando said.

Partly funded by a grant from the Burning Man Project, the team has been hard at work building the piece in St. Louise Studios, an industrial warehouse converted into shared artist studios in West Oakland.


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At first sight, art might be the last thing you'd think the crew is creating. The scene in the studio resembles industrial production more than conceptual sculpture. Sparks fly, and men and women wear protective masks as they weld together large pieces of steel. Exhausted faces run past with a mix of sweat and dirt, and fingers are bandaged continually.

But those who know West Oakland are aware of the vibrant community that focuses on this type of industrial art. The neighborhood "is an industrial center," said Alan Rorie, an artist building the engine of the ship.

Rorie also happens to hold a doctorate in neurobiology from Stanford.

"You have buildings like this that have five-ton cranes and (are) power-zoned for industrial use," he said. "But we don't make anything in this country anymore. The industrial base is dying. For those of us interested (in) doing big, industrial art, it's great."

Said Ric Boelkins, another dedicated worker on the project: "This rocket ship project in general ties a lot of that blue-collar builders ethic and aesthetic back to the current era."

But don't expect to find this genre of art in your local gallery. Numerous artists on the project say Burning Man is one of the only venues in the world than can, or would, host such large-scale industrial art.

"The thing I like about building art in West Oakland is the huge community of friends, and a lot of them are fabricators, a lot of them are artists, and they are very supportive of what we are doing," said Taylor, one of the lead artists. "Sean and I thought, would we be able to do this anyplace else? And our answer was no."

The collaborative nature of such a demanding project requires a group of artists who don't want to be the star. Everyone interviewed mentioned the lack of ego involved in the project.

"Art is better with friends," Rorie said. "There is this idea of the lone artist sitting in his basement, toiling away, and I think the people working in this crew aren't interested in that."

As the crew loaded the rocket late into the night Friday, "We had this energy," Orlando said. "You could see it in everyone "... it was that moment. It's happening."

Even though Burning Man is known for its harsh environment, including 110-degree heat and dust storms, crew members said they can't wait to get out there.

The rocket will be transported to the desert on two rented 50-foot-long flatbed trucks. One of the trucks will hold the rocket, while the other will carry additional items for the unveiling.

A 40-foot-long box truck has also been made into a mobile mechanical shop in case any repair issues arise. Burning Man organizers will provide the huge crane necessary to assemble the rocket in the desert.

"I really want to be in the desert, bad," Boelkins said. "I am going to kiss the ground when I get out of the Winnebago. Absolutely."

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Sean Donnelly/Staff photos
Volunteers weld a section of the Raygun Gothic Rocketship, a 40-foot-tall, 5,000-pound piece of industrial art fashioned in a retro aesthetic, Aug. 11 in Oakland. The piece, being built by 60 artists, will premiere Sept. 4 at this year's Burning Man Project in Nevada. At top, crew members relax Saturday after loading the piece on a truck before departing for the desert festival. More photos on Page A6.