Interview by Eric Swenson, Trojan Core Team
ES: You’ve established quite a reputation for working on big projects, things like a 180-foot long battleship, 30 feet tall, with a dance floor inside, for a Halloween party. How on earth did you get involved in thinking big?
JDS: I think it started very early. I was always interested in art. My Dad loved woodworking, and he passed that on to me. I grew up moving around a lot, and this experience helped shape me. It gave me confidence that I could go anywhere and make something happen. When I graduated high school, I took a train to New York City with high hopes of becoming an actor. I didn’t succeed at that, but as a lighting technician in a nightclub I felt the power of my creativity to move crowds of people.
ES: How did you get into construction?
JDS: After three years in New York I went back to Colorado, where I had spent some of my youth, and fell in love with mountains again and developed a passion for climbing. I started construction as a day laborer, then moved up the ladder, taking a crash course in fine carpentry in and around Aspen. In Breckinridge, some friends and I took over a warehouse for studio space and a small counter-culture art gallery, and I had my first taste of collaborative art. I started to push my limits sculpting, mostly in wood. In a harbinger of the Trojan Horse project, my first big piece was a 15-foot high horse. And it led to my first visit to San Francisco and Burning Man.
ES: So tell us about your first Burn
JDS: Eli, one of my colleagues in the gallery moved to the West Coast, and went to Burning Man. The next year, 2007, he insisted I attend. Before heading to the playa, we shopped for such things as blinking lights, and I thought that Eli had lost his mind, and it didn’t take long for me to lose mine. I became part of the Living Pulse project, my first time experiencing a large collaborative effort. I was instantly hooked. I saw the huge projects in the desert and knew exactly what sort of art I wanted to produce. I returned to Colorado, but, within three months, I was back in San Francisco, serious about my new career.
ES: How did that turn out?
JDS: Unfortunately, shortly after, I did a little too much celebrating at a party and fell 40 feet off a roof, breaking my spine, pelvis, and heels and ending up in the hospital paralyzed from the waist down. But I got working on a really big Burning Man project: a covered wagon, 30 feet long, that could carry 100 people. I couldn’t walk, but thinking about that covered wagon took my mind off my misfortune. It was art therapy—powerful stuff. It’s been difficult recovering from a spinal cord injury as serious as mine, but this week I ran for the first time since my accident, something I thought I would never do again.
ES: What came after the covered wagon?
JDS: The Space Cowboys threw a Halloween party on Treasure Island and invited us and our wagon to participate. The next year, their ghost ship project needed an art director, and I volunteered. We did a 70-foot long pirate ship with a 30-foot tall lighthouse, a 60-foot long whale skeleton, and 111 seagulls.
The next year I designed and curated a 180-foot long battleship and a lot of other art, including a 30-foot long squid.
ES: You also do other work around the Bay Area?
JDS: I just finished a month-long residency with the Cardboard Institute of Technology at the Exploratorium. We called the installation “Subterrain,” in essence building hell out of cardboard. We thought the folks at a kid museum would tell us to tone it down, but we’re into pushing boundaries, and they let us, not even complaining when we created a kiddy torture chamber. With my artistic partner, Josh Short, I recently finished the installation of a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter, complete with a drawbridge for a show downtown at the California College of Arts.
ES: So let me finish by asking what attracted you to the Trojan Horse project?
JDS: First was the sheer size and challenge of building and then moving a beast of such epic proportions. The mystery of the horse, how it will appear standing in the desert, captivated me. Every sculpture I’ve built has shifted in meaning for me between conception and construction. I’m eager to see the arc of this shift. One element that surprises me is how spread out the project team is while being so well- coordinated and organized. We have set our sights so very high, but I look at this team and how it works and know we’ll reach our goals. I frankly can’t imagine a better team than we have assembled for this project.