By the time you read this, an “impermanent” art project will be underway on the grounds of the Hui No‘eau Visual Arts Center. And you’re invited to visit—and contribute to—a woven sculpture made of natural Maui materials. If you don’t catch it by the time it reaches its final presentation at the Source Interactive Arts Festival at Camp Keanae later this month, it will have transmuted its earthly form into a death of ashes on damp soil and plumes of smoke over the ocean.
In other words, this message will soon self-destruct.
Sound intense? Well, that’s kind of the point. Mavis Muller, the facilitator and visionary behind The Burning Basket project, is not your ordinary basket weaver. Into each of her over-sized sculptures, made of locally sourced twigs and leaves, she weaves our stories, inviting us to stuff personal notes into the crevices of the gorgeous baskets she creates. Then—like all good artists—she asks us to do something that challenges us to the core: to watch as our collaborative creation burns to the ground.
It’s difficult for some to imagine working for days creating something intricate and beautiful only to wipe it out in a ball of flames. Not surprisingly, Mavis says the question she gets most frequently is, “Why do you burn it?” She’s reluctant to give a solid answer, instead offering only a knowing smile.
Mavis has done 17 basket burnings, in places like Alaska, Oregon, California, Hawaii and the New Mexico/Mexico border. Simply put, she’s a migratory artist. Each autumn she leaves her studio-home in Homer, Alaska and travels south. For 20 years she has followed her “land partners,” the migratory Sandhill cranes, down the Pacific and central flyways and then returned again in spring. More recently, she added annual visits to Maui—with the help of grants from organizations like the Alaska State Council on the Arts and San Francisco’s Black Rock Arts Foundation—to create art especially for Source. This time, she’s following the humpback whales and plovers that—like Mavis—call both Alaska and Maui home.
I first learned about Mavis a few years ago while attending a brainstorming session for the first Source Festival. At the time she was planning the twelfth project in her series, a large woven sculpture of a whale tail called “Fluke: Burning Basket of Safe Passage.” With a mature, well-developed approach and funding for her project securely in place she stood out amongst Maui’s merry pranksters, setting an example and immediately garnering support.
Mavis’s whale tale soon became a centerpiece of the event (which has since grown into an annual happening now celebrating its fourth year). Like all of Mavis’s burning baskets, it was interactive. It won an award at the Whale Day Festival, and met its flaming conclusion at Source.
A few years later, I witnessed the burning ceremony of another large basket called “Cheers Chalice.” Several hundred people gathered to watch as the basket and all of the personal notes tucked in it were set ablaze. Watching the spectacle I could utter only one word: “Wow.”
To prepare people for this impermanent, emotional ride, Mavis facilitates a variety of workshops (see sidebar). The ultimate goal this year is to construct a 10-foot sculpture titled “Uplift: Basket of Abundance and Gratitude.” For those who can foot the bill to attend the Source Interactive Arts Festival, the piece will burn in the closing ceremony on the evening of Sunday, February 20.
Pressed again to explain the reason for burning these baskets, Mavis begins to reveal her motive. “The movement in the short life of this woven sculpture keeps one in the present moment. It is a work of art that is never static—it is either being imagined, created, actualized, consumed or erased,” she says. “If we want real change, we call on fire. No going back, no changing your mind. Each individual participating will likely have a different answer to the question why? If I give you an answer, then I rob you of discovering your own.”