Arts & Culture

Tacoma couple to light up Burning Man with homemade LED creations

This fiberglass shell was made by Steve LaBerge to fit over a customized riding lawnmower as part of a sculptural vehicle for Burning Man 2016.
This fiberglass shell was made by Steve LaBerge to fit over a customized riding lawnmower as part of a sculptural vehicle for Burning Man 2016. Courtesy

Burning Man, that freewheeling festival of alternative creativity in the Nevada desert, is on this week — and one Tacoma couple is lighting it up, literally, with a caravan of LED-lit spheres, an LED portal and synchronized LED jackets.

“We’ve been wearing the jackets lately when we walk our dog, and people stop their cars, come out of their houses and say they’ve been looking out for us,” said Natalie LaBerge, who with her husband, Steve, is heading up a Tacoma party that drove down to Burning Man last weekend.

The LaBerges also stopped traffic for a few days last weekend as they put the finishing touches on the homemade vehicle they hauled down to Nevada on a trailer, to be reassembled there. A geodesic sphere, made of pipes and 8 feet in diameter, is mounted high atop a customized riding lawnmower covered with a fiberglass alien bug shape, with a tall steering pole and two bucket seats for the LaBerges. It will pull two trailers, each with another sphere and all covered in LED lights that Steve LaBerge programmed to operate in sync.

The LaBerges will be wearing Goodwill-sourced designer jackets also covered in LED lights that flicker through a series of computer-controlled patterns: rainbow stripes, letters, grids, symbols. And at their Prismatic Camp at Burning Man, they’ll assemble a portal sculpture with a laser sensor that sets off LED lights when someone walks through. Like the spheres, it’s synchronized with the jackets.

“Steve worked tremendously hard on this,” says LaBerge. “He’s spent hundreds of hours.”

Friends also spent several days assembling the lead sphere to test-drive it down busy North 30th Street, where the LaBerges live.

“We had 20 cars piled up behind us,” said LaBerge.

Other members of the LaBerges’ Burning Man party include Jeff Strong, Dale and Joanna Chesnut and Dale Hillius. A separate party of performers and artists, including designer Lisa Fruichantie, will travel there under the name Tacoma Is For Lovers.

But that’s not the end of the LED spheres. In previous years, the LaBerges have resurrected their Burning Man creations — including a drivable Venetian gondola and a light-up stage coach — for Tacoma’s First Night celebrations on New Year’s Eve.

“I would be thrilled if Steve decides to put (the spheres) together for First Night,” said Natalie. “It would take him more than six hours to put it together. I think it will simply depend on his mood after Christmas.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

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Video: tinyurl.com/j33prge.

Burning Man: Runs through Friday; burningman.org.

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