An Alta Sierra maker’s journey from robotics and circuit boards to Burning Man and beyond
Special to The Union
Real estate developer Grant Barnhill was riding his bike on the playa at Burning Man with friends when he passed artist Chris Merrick’s camp.
Merrick was sitting on a sofa. His art car, Now-A-Saurus, was parked out front.
“I was totally blown away,” said Barnhill of the kinetic sculpture that can shoot fire 15 feet in the air.
Instantly smitten, Barnhill bought the mutant vehicle. Now, several years later, he has connected with his Burner friend again, this time for an art commission.
“When you make big art and you find a home for it, it can keep living,” said Merrick.
Last week, Merrick traveled to downtown Denver to unpack two 8-foot long crates shipped from his home in Alta Sierra, to install multiple art pieces with steampunk flair.
Using vintage electronics, 600 LEDs and eight computers, the art blends the precision of engineering electronics and free form mechanical design. It took six months to create and pays homage to the century-old brick and timber building where Barnhill will open a co-working space next month.
Originally built in 1898, the building was used as an electronics warehouse for years. When Barnhill bought it, the previous owners had hoarded old television and radio electronics up to the ceiling. During the renovation of the building, Barnhill removed 56 truckloads, recycling what he could. One truckload of the best vintage memorabilia was saved and 10 pallets of Merrick’s favorite pieces were shipped back to his hangar studio shop in Nevada County, where he set out to put his skills to the test.
Married with two kids, Merrick works as a design engineer four days a week at Ensemble Designs, writing software and designing for the international television industry.
Two days a week, he works for himself, as an artist and contract engineer for his business, Merrick Industries LLC. At the beginning of the year, he was designing circuit boards before switching gears to his artist side.
With only a week to go before heading to Burning Man, Merrick installed his first big commission.
When the building opens next month, office workers stopping in for a drink on the first floor of the building will find a 16-foot long bar front made of vintage electronics lit up and programmable, thanks to modern-day LEDs, micro controllers and software.
On the second floor, co-workers will find five 1950s-style television replicas displaying black and white footage without the vacuum tubes and bulky weight of that original era. Each wood-carved replica Merrick made by looking at old photographs for inspiration. The televisions’ innards are composed of a computer playback device and flat-screen monitor.
In a common area on the third floor, a steampunk chandelier will hang from the ceiling measuring seven-and-a-half feet by three-and-half-feet, with moving gears and more LEDs.
“To see it all complete like this totally exceeded my expectations,” said Barnhill.
For Merrick, the project tested his skills, his maker mind and his artistic creativity on many levels.
As a boy, growing up in Michigan with the automobile industry as a backdrop, Merrick was the kid always winning science fairs. In the 1970s, he made his own computers and later studied robotics.
“I’m one of the original makers. I was an engineer. I was a complete nerd. Art was a discovery in my late 30s and 40s,” Merrick said.
His earliest artistic spark ignited while watching street artists on the sidewalks of Monterey creating space scenes with spray cans and stencils. Soon he was making his own multi-layered “reverse” paintings on glass.
In 2000, Merrick ventured to Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the first time. He found his people.
“Being there, seeing all the art, helped to inspire me,” he said.
After living in the community, Merrick took fire safety classes and learned how to make fire cannons. He incorporated fire elements into his work, when he spent $6,000 building ODO, his illuminated dragonfly car. For this year’s Burning Man, with his son, Sebastian, 16, he built a weeping willow that glows with cascading LED lights when night falls.
For Merrick, he is in his element when he has free rein to use his imagination. It’s the process that brings him joy.
“If I’m creating, I’m happy. I don’t have to be right or wrong. I can allow myself to make mistakes. That’s my journey. That’s where I’m growing,” he said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 913-3067.
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