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Tinker Tankers

Ryan Jesena

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Brooklyn-based sculptor Mike Ross, ’98, had been “thinking a lot about oil and human power”—and his desire to sculpt not from scratch but by manipulating real, king-sized objects. Big Rig Jig, which made its debut at the counterculture festival Burning Man last year, shows what can be done with a couple of repurposed 18-wheelers. The sculpture, now in several ready-to-reassemble pieces, rests in an Oakland warehouse as Ross works to find it a permanent home.

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If you want to make a statement with giant trucks, you start with small ones. Mike Ross, found the shape he wanted for Big Rig Jig by playing with and gluing together some toy trucks. Most of his sculpture is “bigger than person-size,” a scale that helps “capture a child-like feeling of wonderment.”

The piece was his first for Burning Man, held in a corner of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada each year at summer’s end. Big Rig Jig was built in two months, mostly in a warehouse in Oakland where Ross and a handful of fellow builders sliced and spliced the oil tankers and rigs he had purchased from a truck boneyard in Jackson, Calif. The crew worked night and day in the shop, “occasionally eating and sleeping” in a nearby apartment. Two weeks before the festival, the project moved to the desert, where Burning Man made three cranes available and the work crew sometimes expanded to 20 people. Even so, “the time frame was so tight that people were still fabricating some pieces while it was being bolted together.”

Much of the project’s engineering was done by folks with Stanford ties: Marc Ramirez, MS ’05 and a doctoral candidate working in structural engineering and geomechanics, Steven Patton, MS ’05, and his wife Petra Patton. Big Rig Jig was named by Ross’s fiancée, Nicole Whelan, ’99, who also installed a jungle-like interior of artificial plants in the tanks. People climbing inside the structure could, of course, meditate on the natural source of petroleum while marveling at Big Rig Jig’s gravity-defying spectacle as a “visual metaphor for non-sustainability.” As Ross points out, this is art that “can speak to a lot of people. You don’t have to be versed in art history to appreciate it.”

Ross, who majored in symbolic systems at Stanford, worked in artificial intelligence before the dotcom bust freed him six years ago to pursue art. His next project won’t be at Burning Man because, true to his love of large scale, he wants to “do something with real buildings.”

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