Rancher Cleared In Burning Man Torching
Two San Francisco artists plan to appeal a jury verdict that found a Nevada farmer wasn’t liable for torching a replica of a Spanish galleon that was abandoned for years after a Burning Man Festival.
Artist Simon Cheffins and mechanical engineer Gregory Jones are unhappy with the jury’s decision in federal court in Reno last week. They plan to take the case to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, their attorney told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The pair sought damages from a 57-year-old Reno rancher, Michael Stewart, whose lawyers say he was simply clearing land he acquired when he burned the ship in 2006 after its display in several Burning Man festivals.
The artwork was built around a school bus with what the rancher says was a broken axle. The artists insist they never meant to abandon it.
The jury decided the artists had abandoned their work, but their lawyer insisted the replica galleon was a type of art protected by the U.S. Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, regardless of its location on private land.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert McQuaid Jr. ruled Thursday that the ship was little more than a mode of transportation and not a piece of fine art.
No criminal charges were filed over the ship’s destruction.
After sitting abandoned for two years in the harsh Nevada desert, the once iconic ship was more a rusty eyesore than a crowned jewel, Stewart’s lawyer Keegan Low said.
Stewart considered the ship “junk” and torched it when he acquired the private property where it was stored, court documents show.
The suit alleges Stewart made no attempt to contact the San Francisco artists before taking action.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. We acknowledge that,” said Paul Quade, the artists’ Reno attorney. “But for someone to be so callous to call it a piece of junk …” He said the ship was most recently retrieved for a showing at Burning Man in 2005.
The artists checked on the ship every few months until it was torched in December 2006, he said.
The ship was regarded as an “artcar” for the annual counterculture gathering, but it was eventually banned from the festival because of safety concerns. The driver of the bus, with limited visibility, had to maneuver the massive vessel by radio directions from a pilot on deck.
The artists parked the ship on a ranch with permission from owner Joan Grant.
Stewart, a critic of Burning Man, bought the property from Grant in 2004 but allowed her to live there until she died or decided to move. Grant moved in 2005 after her mobile home burned down in a grease fire, court records say.