David R. Kitts – Visual Artist & Armchair Physicist

by Davin Stedman

David Kitts David Kitts in his studio.

It’s because of artists like David R. Kitts that I’ve almost been kidnapped.

Every summer around a certain time, without fail, some of my longtime associates—AKA the “Burners”—begin calling and texting me at the oddest hours, from seedy dive bars in Portland, Oregon, or Thailand. They call to explain to me how I’m wasting my life and missing out on a great final spark of creativity by skipping yet another Burning Man.

The proposition is always the same: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” They have an extra pass and they’ll pick me right up. It’s true that I finally convinced my girlfriend not to leave me if I theoretically did ever jump on that bus bound for the Nevada desert, but again this last summer, I passed up the opportunity. It’s around such times that I often wake up at night, startled and slightly disappointed I have not been spirited away to Burning Man. As I slip back to sleep, for a brief moment I see the glowing eyes of those mad, yet true friends who would risk a potential felony to show me, well, art. They describe the art at Burning Man like a religious vision; experiences that could never be encapsulated by 16-mm film or done justice on Instagram. Over their shoulders, beyond their glowing eyes, I see strange metal structures. I see impossible things. I see water dancing with fire. I’m dreaming.

David KittsDavid R. Kitts is one of a number of artists who spend an entire year molding steel, wreckage, and salvaged treasure into the creative currency that truly powers Burning Man: fine art. Whether in his warehouse studio (where an 8-meter surrealist mailbox greets you at the door) or inside his own head with a sketchpad and pencil re-engineering a tower of fire, he never loses sight of his canvas: the flat line of the Nevada playa that is the inescapable, defining characteristic of the landscape at Burning Man.

“The desert is my datum line; the core visual landscape that all of my ideas are drawn upon,” David explains. “The desert is so unobstructed you can observe the curvature of the earth just standing on it.”

To really understand the mindset of David R. Kitts and gain a deeper appreciation of his art, I recommend revisiting the legacy of Nikola Tesla. There is a breed of genius that still blossoms on our continent: men and women like Tesla who stood on the cutting-edge of the possibilities of physics and brought to us: tomorrow. They are the mothers and fathers of ham radios, the hydrogen bomb, and smart phones. Many of them, like Tesla, were accomplished showmen in their own right. In the presence of drinking buddies such as Samuel Clemens, Tesla staged events on his own birthday to reveal his latest inventions, echoes of which resonate through the continued growth and popularity of festivals like Burning Man and the science-based artistry of David R. Kitts.

Some of the most elegant “artworks” of the 20th century were inventions that ranged from the beautiful to the macabre: the Victrola, the Volkswagen Beetle, an M1911 pistol. Much like David R. Kitts’ “Fusion Fire” art installation, this art had function.

David Kitts“Fusion Fire” is a show-stopping piece of art that is the B-movie version of a General Fusion, Inc. fusion reactor under construction in Burnaby. The folks at General Fusion even gave David a warm wish of good luck when he politely contacted them to get their blessing regarding the project their work inspired. The good people of Bellingham and lower mainland British Columbia, however, can rest assured that David has abstained from building an actual fusion reactor. I wouldn’t doubt that for the right budget he could upgrade his “Fusion Fire” experiment into an operational facility, but David is a family man, and no one needs the NSA or MOSSAD knocking on their door in the middle of the night.

The brilliance of “Fusion Fire” is that anyone willing to follow a few simple instructions can operate this fairy tale of a fusion reactor. The participant is free to flip switches and punch buttons as a Mercury program—era clock counts down. As the show begins, “Fusion Fire” starts to rumble, and a globe beyond the control board fills with water. The water proceeds to spin in a violent whirlpool, while long flames shoot inside the vortex, through the top of the sphere, and into the black night. It’s a thrilling ritual that must cease after a short time, or this make-believe reactor will quite literally melt down (to the detriment of no one but David’s machine).

In 2012, as fate would have it, one of David’s art projects became the centerpiece of the award-winning film, Safety Not Guaranteed. David explains, “I had my team come down to the university auction [at the University of Washington] and this mysterious character keeps outbidding us on every lot. So I pulled the guy aside halfway through the event and found out he was production designer Ben Blankenship, for the film Safety Not Guaranteed. My team and I cut Ben a creative deal in which he contracted our shop out to build his vision of a time machine. Plus, I got to keep a time machine.”

David KittsIn Safety Not Guaranteed, actor Mark Duplass’ character, Kenneth Calloway, is an erratic and dangerously out of touch man who is attempting to build a time machine. David is an approachable and well-adjusted gentleman, but I can envision the character in full manic mode at Burning Man, insisting on camping next to “Fusion Fire”. Men like David R. Kitts, Kenneth Calloway, and Nikola Tesla share a certain something. Maybe it’s just a confident glimmer in the eye—that look a 21-year-old Einstein had. That half-smile, just short of a smirk, that says, “Yeah, I could probably build a time machine.”

On the last night I spent with David, he had me swear an oath of secrecy. Then he proceeded to show me the next wave of artistic experiments he’s hiding in his shop. One promising piece was inspired by Bellingham’s Spark Museum of Electrical Invention curator John Winters. “It’s something scientists have theorized as possible on a large scale,” explains John, “and a couple of us around the region are in a race to apply this wonderful idea as conceptual art.”

“Fusion Fire” will be on display during upcoming Bellingham Art Walks, which take place in downtown Bellingham on the first Friday of every month.

By Davin Stedman

See more of David’s work at http://www.kittsmetalworks.com/#kitts