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Kennewick man takes glass with class to Burning Man

Scrolling through the offerings on Craigslist is always a surprise. You never know what you'll stumble across.

It could be the mate to grandma's vase, someone to shoe your horse or -- as Tom Woodall of Kennewick discovered -- inspiration for your next piece of art.

Woodall, an associate professor at Columbia Basin College, has a degree in art from the University of Washington and has always painted and worked in other art mediums when not teaching English as a Second Language courses. In 2002 he added glass to his portfolio.

So when he found someone selling six pieces of 3-by-8-foot tempered glass, Woodall was challenged. He began wondering what he could do with them, artwise.

Originally the quarter-inch thick panes were windows in an Oregon office. But now?

"They offered possibilities. Besides, I like recycling. So I bought them," Woodall said. "Glass, especially tempered glass this size, is expensive. This was my chance to do something really, really big."

For inspiration he drew on his experiences at the 2010 Burning Man event held annually in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

It draws nearly 50,000 people -- who pay $250 each -- to camp out on the ancient dry lake bed and party.

This year's Burning Man is this week, with the highlight of the event today's massive bonfire.

The eight-day event is part desert survival test, part art colony and altogether impossible to easily define.

Everyone who attends Burning Man has to provide everything they need for the eight days. Only ice and coffee are sold on site. They also need to follow "leave no trace" practices and pack out everything they bring, including trash.

Part of the Burning Man experience is the alternative, creative artwork displayed around the various camps. This year one of them will be Woodall's.

He and a friend pulled a trailer to the event with his creation, Wind Watchers -- a combination of wood, metal and glass panels -- all packed in to a special crate.

It took Woodall several months to come up with a concept and design incorporating the glass panels.

He painted abstract designs in oils on one side of all six panes. Then paired them up, painted sides together, and framed them in wood making three panels.

Depending on the lighting, when you look at one side of a panel you see one painting, walk around and look at the other side and you see the second. When light shines through you see a third its combination of both paintings.

"Planning this was good exercise for the mind and a lot of fun," he said.

The freestanding panels are bolted together in a rough semi-circle. Steel plates, cut with a torch to mimic fingers, were to be attached to each panel once they set it up at Burning Man.

He estimated each panel and steel plate weighs 350 to 400 pounds and stands about 12 feet.

"Good thing the Burning Man organizers have cranes and heavy lifters available," Woodall said.

For added stability, he added guy-wires.

"When the wind blows, which it does at Burning Man, I think it'll whistle through the steel and cables adding a noise element," he said.

Woodall said what he's created isn't a sculpture, though it is freestanding and three dimensional.

"It's an installation," Woodall said. Wikipedia describes installation art as three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform a viewer's perception of a space.

"Even I haven't seen it all assembled," he said. "Seeing this, something I dragged out of the ether, will be a wonderful experience."

This is the largest piece Woodall's ever done and he's not sure what he'll do with it in the long term.

"I haven't thought that far out yet," he said. "I've done my best to make it waterproof so it could be set up outdoors."

Over the years he's been painting and creating other types of art, and he's been invited to participate in Allied Arts' Art in the Park shows several times.

He has also exhibited at the Larson Gallery in Yakima, as well as other shows and galleries. Some pieces he does for his own enjoyment, others he sells.

"I do it because I enjoy it. I'm not getting rich with my art," he said.

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