Two boys, build­ing things

John Biggs got the call to help Chris Bur­den con­struct an air­ship. A dream took flight.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Deb­o­rah Vankin

The translu­cent air­ship glis­tens peace­fully in the sun­light in­side the Res­nick Pav­il­ion at the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art as a crowd gath­ers and an­tic­i­pa­tion grows. “Ode to San­tos Du­mont,” the late artist Chris Bur­den’s fi­nal in­stal­la­tion, is about to take flight.

A tall, sun-scorched man, wear­ing a gold hoop ear­ring and a pais­ley, silk ban­danna snug on his head, ap­proaches the air­ship.

“Ex­cuse me, sir?” in­terupts a young boy. “Are you a pi­rate?”

“A re­tired pi­rate,” teases John Biggs. “I had kids and

re­tired from the high seas.”

Biggs crouches be­neath the float­ing art­work and tin­kers with the me­tal gon­dola dan­gling from the belly of the di­ri­gi­ble. Then he flips a switch on the en­gine. A lowhum­ming “sch­lap-schap” sound from the small pro­pel­ler fills the gallery.

“Ar­rgh!” Biggs snarls, mim­ick­ing a hook with one hand and high-fiv­ing on­look­ers with the other. The ethe­real bal­loon lifts off the ground and be­gins cir­cling the room.

A ma­chin­ist, crafts­man and artist in his own right, Biggs worked closely with Bur­den for more than seven years to con­struct the di­ri­gi­ble’s en­gine, a replica of a 1903 De Dion ga­so­line mo­tor. The sculp­ture is an homage to Bur­den’s in­spi­ra­tion, Brazil­ian avi­a­tor Al­berto San­tosDu­mont, who flew a di­ri­gi­ble around the Eif­fel Tower in 1901. Biggs’ care­ful op­er­a­tion of the piece is his own homage to Bur­den, who died in May.

Dur­ing a month­long run at LACMA that ends Sun­day, Biggs has launched the pre­car­i­ous ma­chine for 15minute flights through­out the day. As he play­fully in­ter­acts with visi­tors, sa­vor­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence while car­ry­ing out Bur­den’s last artis­tic feat — a hy­brid of science, art and en­gi­neer­ing — Biggs has be­come part of the in­stal­la­tion per­for­mance it­self.

“Chris al­ways said the jour­ney is some­times bet­ter than the des­ti­na­tion, that it’s about the process as op­posed to rush­ing to the fin­ish line,” Biggs says. “That’s what he loved about this piece — what I love. It’s, more than any­thing, about be­ing in the mo­ment.”

Such shared mo­ments de­fined Biggs’ and Bur­den’s re­la­tion­ship, as did par­al­lel cre­ative in­ter­ests. Both were fas­ci­nated by avi­a­tion as chil­dren, both stud­ied art in col­lege and were drawn to in­tri­cately en­gi­neered, ki­netic sculp­tures. Both were known to take apart me­chan­i­cal ob­jects as a way to probe the minds of the ob­jects’ orig­i­nal cre­ators.

“Back-en­gi­neer­ing, you start see­ing these peo­ple in the mo­tion, in the logic, in how they con­structed these things to come up with the an­swer to a cer­tain prob­lem,” Biggs says. “That cap­ti­vated Chris too.”

Biggs grew up in Wilm­ing­ton, Del., and as a print­mak­ing stu­dent at the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign, he was a huge fan of Bur­den, whose whim­si­cal blend of art, science and silli­ness moved him. “But I never thought I’d meet the guy!” Biggs says.

Af­ter roughly two decades of do­ing spe­cial ef­fects and an­i­ma­tron­ics work for films such as “Doc­tor Dolit­tle” and “Ge­orge of the Jun­gle,” plus a stint in the aerospace in­dus­try, Biggs had carved out a free­lance niche for him­self as a prob­lem solver on artsmeets-en­gi­neer­ing projects. He built a hy­draulic lift for one client’s truck and mod­i­fied film cam­eras for di­rec­tors. About eight years ago, he was sum­moned to Bur­den’s Topanga Canyon stu­dio to con­sult on the build­ing of an en­gine — what would be­come the heart of “Ode to San­tos Du­mont,” though Biggs didn’t know that yet.

Bur­den’s se­ries of model bridges made of Mec­cano and Erec­tor set parts were so strik­ing, Biggs had not dared to plumb the ter­ri­tory him­self. When Bur­den opened the door, Biggs blurted out: “You ru­ined bridges for me!”

Af­ter six months of work, Biggs fin­ished the en­gine and Bur­den fi­nally re­vealed what the pro­ject was all about. Biggs had no­ticed what looked to be a zep­pelin struc­ture on a ta­ble at the stu­dio.

“I didn’t say any­thing be­cause I didn’t want to jinx it,”

Biggs says, “be­cause that had al­ways been a dream of mine.”

Biggs gave Bur­den his in­voice, think­ing this was good­bye. But in­stead Bur­den led him out­side the stu­dio to con­tinue talk­ing.

“He said: ‘No, John, no, no; this is the end of Phase 1. We’re mov­ing on to Phase 2,’ ” Biggs re­calls. “We looked out over the canyon, down to­wards the ocean. Chris was like: ‘Do you see it? Do you see it? I want to fly around Topanga!’ ”

At this point, says Bur­den’s close friend Paul Schim­mel, “Chris was so sat­is­fied and taken with John’s ded­i­ca­tion that they moved to­gether into, ‘What is it that needs to be done to make it fly?’ There was a great sense of ca­ma­raderie be­tween them, both in terms of en­gi­neer­ing and crafts­man­ship. I think John and Chris were able to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate the kind of mad ge­nius and inspired am­bi­tion of the orig­i­nal in­ven­tor, San­tos Du­mont.”

In Jan­uary, they stood side by side in a Ca­mar­illo air­plane hangar and watched the blimp take flight for the first time to­gether.

“It was very ex­cit­ing; it did ex­actly what we wanted it to do,” Biggs says of the air­ship. But it was also the mo­ment Biggs re­al­ized the se­ri­ous­ness of Bur­den’s can­cer.

“I asked him af­ter­wards, ‘How are you do­ing?’ ” Bur­den’s re­sponse: not well. “I told him I was sorry,” Biggs says. “He was like, ‘You know, John, it’s gonna be what it is.’ ”

The mem­ory is so re­cent, Biggs’ voice cracks with emo­tion. He pinches a nap­kin over his eyes, hold­ing back tears.

“That was hard,” Biggs says be­fore let­ting go of the nap­kin and let­ting the tears roll.

Af­ter com­pos­ing him­self, he con­tin­ues talk­ing about the sculp­ture.

“You know, there’s that mo­ment when it all shuts down and just glides,” he says. “It’s the per­fect mo­ment. I stood there with him watch­ing it that day. Chris turned to me and he was just re­ally, re­ally happy.”

Biggs says he feels for­tu­nate not to have worked with, but to have played with his men­tor. Bur­den’s in­flu­ence, he says, “will def­i­nitely af­fect my re­al­ity in terms of cre­at­ing art. It’s a mu­tual feed-fest.”

For as long as he can re­mem­ber, art has been a part of Biggs’ life. His fa­ther was a lawyer whose heart was in hobby-farm­ing; his mother was a pain­ter who, he says, stud­ied with N.C. Wyeth’s daugh­ter, the artist Carolyn Wyeth, a fam­ily friend. Biggs thought he’d study il­lus­tra­tion in col­lege, but he was drawn to print­mak­ing out of a love for old lithog­ra­phy presses.

A vivid dream in col­lege changed his course and trig­gered an idea: a chair in a bot­tle, an ob­ject that once had a use but no longer does, ex­cept to look beau­ti­ful.

Biggs’ work evolved into ki­netic sculp­tures that cel­e­brated the in­ter­sec­tion of form and func­tion. He be­gan craft­ing minia­ture me­chan­i­cal ob­jects — a tiny, spin­ning chair or a Bur­den-inspired “not-so-big wheel” — out of ster­ling sil­ver, each en­cased in a clear Pyrex glass bot­tle.

“I orig­i­nally wanted the viewer to be drawn in by the me­chan­i­cal as­pect of it — it does some­thing within the con­fines of the bot­tle — but I also like the chal­lenge of set­ting these re­ally tight pa­ram­e­ters,” he says.

Through­out his ca­reer in the movie busi­ness, Biggs con­tin­ued to make art at his home stu­dio in Echo Park, where he lives with his wife of 21 years and two daugh­ters, now 11 and 13.

Art-mak­ing pro­vided a refuge from the fast-paced en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, he says, where “ev­ery­one wanted ev­ery­thing yesterday.”

His sculp­tures in bot­tles con­tin­ued to evolve. The new­est ones use so­lar energy to pro­pel move­ment, such as a but­ter­fly’s wings flap­ping over so­lar-pan­eled flow­ers.

Though he’s had a few ex­hi­bi­tions over the years, in­clud­ing at Philadelphia’s Wexler Gallery in 2001 and at Ge­orge’s gallery in Los Feliz in 1998, Biggs says show­ing his work was never the end goal. “The jour­ney’s bet­ter than the des­ti­na­tion,” he says. “What dreams may come — who knows?”

Sun­day will see “Ode’s” fi­nal flight at LACMA. Af­ter which Biggs will go back to free­lance pro­to­type work and the sculp­ture will re­turn to the Bur­den stu­dio for “tin­ker­ing” — Biggs is in the process of fin­ish­ing a backup mo­tor for it — and there are “some things in the works,” Biggs says, sur­round­ing Chris’ art. “Loose ends, but I can’t say what they are yet. And I want to be there to sup­port [Bur­den’s wife] Nancy.”

There are no im­mi­nent ex­hi­bi­tion plans for the sculp­ture, as of yet, the Bur­den stu­dio says.

As “Ode to San­tos Du­mont” races to­ward its fin­ish line at LACMA, Biggs is in no rush to get there. If there’s one thing he’s learned from play­ing with his men­tor, it’s how to sa­vor the mo­ment.

Again, Biggs’ eyes well up when de­scrib­ing his fa­vorite mo­ment dur­ing each air­ship flight, the point at which the di­ri­gi­ble’s en­gine shuts off and the bal­loon con­tin­ues to sail through the air, silently.

“A lot of peo­ple miss it, it’s the ‘too busy for life’ thing,’ ” he says. “The mo­tor goes off and they leave. And I’m, like: ‘Wait, wait, this is the best part.’ It’s so grace­ful and beau­ti­ful.

“I al­ways see Chris just fly­ing off into the dis­tance with it,” he con­tin­ues. “I’m just glad I could give that to him — for his mo­ment.”

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

THE DI­RI­GI­BLE “Ode to San­tos Du­mont” looms be­hind ma­chin­ist and artist John Biggs, who helped Chris Bur­den build it. The work­ing art­work is at LACMA.

From John Biggs

ONE OF John Biggs’ ma­chines in a bot­tle: “Egg Wing,” out­fit­ted with so­lar pan­els and small mo­tors.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

CHRIS BUR­DEN in 2001 in his Topanga Canyon stu­dio, build­ing with Erec­tor pieces.

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