By DOUGLAS IMBROGNO
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In the end, Mike Eros faced away from the mammoth memorial sculpture he brought to life at this year’s Burning Man festival, as Margareta Appalachia went up in flames in a Nevada desert.
He was not making a statement in turning away from the 22-foot-high sculpture that honored his sister, Margaret Eileen Eros Shifflett, whom he’d grown up with in the hills of West Virginia.
Eros was dressed as “Orange Mike,” his Burning Man handle, in an orange outfit with tall, peaked orange wings worthy of a tangerine-colored angel Gabriel.
He faced the remains of the smoldering sculpture. It had been pieced together in various cities by a 25-person team and featured a woman in a dress flashing a peace sign as she rose out of a fold of mountains.
It took a week to erect in the Black Rock Desert, 90 miles north of Reno, Nevada, as part of the yearly transformation of a chunk of remote desert into a week-long communal art city.
Facing the ruins of the sculpture, there stood a phoenix — or, rather, a 10-foot-tall steel angel coated in glittering bituminous coal — coming into view amid the ashes.
“For me, it felt more like a celebration than anything,” Eros said, looking back on what festivalgoers call “the burn.”
A ‘temple of peace’
Margareta Appalachia was one of this year’s showcase sculptures at the annual Burning Man global fire arts festival, which took place on the playa of an ancient lake bed Aug. 27 through Sept. 4.
A July 16 profile in the Sunday Gazette-Mail told the story behind Margareta Appalachia. Margaret was adopted by a West Virginia couple — Eros’ parents — from a Korean orphanage during a Peace Corps stint.
Eros grew up with Margaret in the hills around Elkins and then the neighborhoods of Charleston. The family moved to the state’s capital city to be closer to hospitals because of the kidney failure Margaret experienced as a child and the kidney transplants — one failed, one successful — she needed.
Margaret died in 2001, at age 28, of complications from her kidney ailments.
Eros spent years pondering how to honor the legacy of what he described as his sister’s lively, rebellious and life-affirming spirit while also paying homage to the hills in which she was raised.
Eros was reached by phone at his home in Houston, where he is based in his work as a globetrotting petroleum engineer and earth scientist. But his sculptural homage to his sister’s legacy, and to the Appalachian hills that shaped her, brings out the reverence in his voice.
What was the Burning Man sculpture about?
“Margareta Appalachia was a temple of peace dedicated to the ancient ecological beauty of Appalachia and built in memory of one of its strongest daughters — the peacemaker and homemaker Margaret Eileen Eros Shifflett,” he said.
The sculpture burned hot the night it was set ablaze because it was slathered in a slurry of Pocahontas bituminous coal, which made it sparkle at night when lit.
A gathering place
It was an ambitious venture, as the effort cost about $20,000, paid for through a Burning Man honorarium and personal fundraising.
“The real reason I did it was, I didn’t want people to forget her or forget what West Virginia really stands for, especially in these times when it’s so easy to overlook small people and kind of simpler times or simpler places,” he said. “I don’t mean to say West Virginia is simple — I mean the quiet beauty of it, which is harder to explain.”
The sculpture worked as Eros and his team had hoped: as a gathering place, a resting place, an inspiration and an education.
Margareta Appalachia was given some prime real estate at the heart of Black Rock City, which springs up with all manner of artful and outrageous sculptures at each week-long Burning Man gathering.
The iconic Burning Man figure himself, rising 75 feet or so from the playa, was located just about 1,000 feet away from Margareta Appalachia. The Man burned the following evening at the culmination of the festival.
“We were pretty surprised about where we were put,” Eros said. “It actually added to the beauty of it. You feel like you’re part of the skyline instead of being remotely located.”
Given the biting dust storms and rains that can sweep the playa, people would take shelter inside the sculpture, Eros said. Its interior featured pulverized coal on the walls and replications of extinct trees from the Carboniferous era, an education in the history of the Appalachian hills.
“During the heat of the day people would sit on one side of her facing out to the open playa and other big art projects,” he said. “And we had a lot of people who didn’t know where West Virginia was — and didn’t know what coal was, and they got to learn. So that was great. It still surprises me that that’s true.”
Eros said he was especially delighted when two women walked up to the sculpture and said they were from West Virginia and — just like his parents — had adopted Korean orphans.
“I’m like, ‘Really?!’” Eros said. “That alone made my day.”
A celebration of home
Eros has spent years writing essays and poems about his sister. At Burning Man, he released a limited-edition, 40-page book about her. Later this fall, with help from New York City-based journalist Steven Thrasher, he’ll release a second edition, adding images from Burning Man to explain more of Margareta Appalachia’s backstory and inspiration.
The coal-dusted sculpture was, Eros said, “a celebration of home” and a chance for the many global travelers who came to Burning Man “to see literally slivers and facets of the beauty of Appalachia, which is more than 300 million years old but is still surviving and beautiful.”
The sculpture also offered a little perspective on “one of its strongest spirits,” Eros said.
His sister’s life inspired him to share more about the place they grew up, he said.
“And also to make a tribute to peace, which is, I guess, her favorite symbol, but also the real lasting meaning of her life.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at [email protected], 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.