Big wooden bird, bigger ball of fire envisioned to commemorate anniversary of raid

Performance art seeks to capture attention of folks on the fringe


Lawrence artist and Phoenix Festival planner Gregory Thomas works on a model of a wooden phoenix. Thomas is trying to raise interest and money to construct a 20-foot version of the bird, which will be burned in a performance at the end of August to commemorate Quantrill's raid on Lawrence.


Lawrence artist Gregory Thomas built this model of a wooden phoenix in preparation for an event called the Phoenix Festival. Thomas is trying to raise interest and money to construct a 20-foot version of the bird, which will be burned in a performance at the end of August to commemorate Quantrill's raid on Lawrence.


Lawrence artist Gregory Thomas built this model of a wooden phoenix in preparation for an event called the Phoenix Festival. Thomas is trying to raise interest and money to construct a 20-foot version of the bird, which will be burned in a performance at the end of August to commemorate Quantrill's raid on Lawrence.

Some people are interested in history. Some are drawn to art.

To engage the rest, artist Gregory Thomas believes, publicly destroying a larger-than-life item in a giant ball of flames usually does the trick.

“People love a spectacle,” Thomas says.

Thomas sees his plans for an event he’s dubbed the Phoenix Festival as a way to engage that latter bunch in activities commemorating Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, which happened almost 150 years ago on Aug. 21, 1863.

He’s drumming up community support, seeking permits and raising money to build a 20-foot-tall wooden sculpture of a phoenix, the majestic, mythological bird symbolizing rebirth, that will be torched in a public production involving a massive fire and live performers.

The burn is tentatively planned for Labor Day weekend in the Warehouse Arts District, where Thomas has been working on a model of the sculpture in the Seed Co. Studios artist collective space, 826 Pennsylvania St.

Thomas wants to complete the full-size sculpture before July’s Final Friday event and have it on display for the month preceding its destruction. The idea, he says, is for viewers to take time to contemplate that — much like the city of Lawrence was — the beautiful, hard-to-build artwork is going to be destroyed without its spirit being extinguished.

“The project has a very limited life,” he says. “It’s about the experience.”

Expected performers at the event include historical speakers, live musicians and dancers from Lawrence’s Foxy by Proxy burlesque troupe, for which Thomas is technical director (and, occasionally, an on-stage performer who goes by the name Rexy Bodean).

Before landing in Lawrence about five years ago, Thomas lived in San Francisco, where he got involved with set design and participated in a performance art group that appeared at the Burning Man event (think tens of thousands of people, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, community, art, self-expression, self-reliance and lots and lots of things being lit on fire).

Between living in San Francisco and Lawrence, Thomas said, he returned to his hometown of Valley Forge, Penn., where a neighboring borough was doing something he was instantly smitten with: the Firebird Festival.

The annual event, centered on burning a huge wooden phoenix sculpture, takes place in Phoenixville, Penn., which Thomas described as a small, failed steel and iron town that has leveraged the arts to successfully reinvent itself. Phoenixville’s event, which now draws about 16,000 people, inspired Thomas’ idea for Lawrence.

He’s launched a campaign called “The Phoenix Project: From Ashes to Immortality” on to raise money for construction materials, payment for performance artists and a stipend for himself to help pay the bills, as he’s envisioning this art project as his full-time job for the summer.

As of last week, Thomas had received about $300 of his $8,000 goal. The Indiegogo campaign ends June 11. He says the show will go on regardless, though lack of funds would affect quality and how much he’ll have to spend out-of-pocket to pull it off.

Note to firebugs: Donate $500 to the Indiegogo campaign and you get to be one of the people that light it.


Lawrence Morgan 5 years ago

This is ridiculous. It does not do any favor to Lawrence to construct such an object at this cost.

This money, if people wish to give it, could be used for much better things to commemorate Quantrill's raid in Lawrence.

kef104 5 years ago

Yeah, lets burn a phoenix to the ground and leave nothing but ashes. That will make everyone in Lawrence feel good about Quantrill having done the same thing. Strikes me as sad and rather pitiful.

Personally, I would rather celebrate the actual rebirth, not the destruction.

kef104 5 years ago

Perhaps if the phoenix was decorated with images of the raiders, of slavery, of MU, and after it burnt to nothing more than ashes, another statute arose from those ashes. The new statue could resemble the Eldridge and be covered with images of those who survived and the later accomplishments of this small, yet great, city. Then I might support this endeavor. As is, forget it.

Icomiclast 5 years ago

It appears that this art project is not intended for the literal-minded population. If you are unable to engage your imagination at this spectacle, and see the celebration itself as a symbol of Lawrence's rebirth, then by all means, do not attend and diminish the experience for the rest of us. We won't even notice your absence.

kef104 5 years ago

Icon, I understand you like being the non-conformist. So do I. I like art that stirs the imagination and lets individuals feel and see as their individual experiences and moods allow.

This problem is not one of literal minds verses imaginative minds. If this was a random art project and someone wanted to burn something down, then cool, go for it. Call it burning bird and create an annual spectacle with celebratory refreshments of ones choice. Heck it could even focus on food or cars, no big deal. Besides, a Phoenix rises from the ashes, it does not disappear into the ashes.

However, Gregory Thomas wants to create an annual all community celebration. This is not a project for a few folks that like watching things burn. Heck, I like watching things burn. I have a friend that has an annual bon fire/pig roast. It makes for an incredible evening.

Gregory instead wants to take something he has seen for something else and make it a "unique" idea for celebrating Quantrill's raid. It is not. The burning of the city was not fun, and in and of itself, is not seen as an event to celebrate, at least not in Kansas. Columbia may have a different take. If you want a city, ie, the entire population to build an annual event around this practice, then it should be reflective of the initial event that the citizens of this grand community actually are proud of. We are proud of that our long ago forefather's rebuilt. We rose from those murder filled ashes and became a community that genuinely cares about on another.

Seriously think about this. Does Self show video of us badly losing games to celebrate the greatness of KU Basketball? I bet attendance at Late Nite would plummet if he did. Likewise, Gregory Thomas, who wants to establish a new annual event, needs to focus on the rebuilding the community, not simply the destruction of it, if he wants anyone to celebrate with him. Either that or pick a different holiday to celebrate and go on as planned. It would probably be a perfect way to top off a party at summer's end.

Let me stage this a different way. If Gregory's idea was more popular he would have raised more than $300 by now. He has been fundraising for several months already. You could pick a random topic and most of them could get $300 raised over a weekend. I am trying to help the man accomplish his goal. Change it to something that our community and the actual celebration more easily connects with and it will work.

kef104 5 years ago

Edit time: I is problematic that I tend to see mistakes only after posting.

Paragraph 4, towards the end should read as: We are proud that long ago our forefather's rebuilt. Paragraph 5, a little past the middle should read: rebuilding of the community, not simply the destruction of it,

If you find other mistakes, feel free to list them for me and correct as needed.

irvan moore 5 years ago

please do not spend any public money on this project

blindrabbit 5 years ago

Great idea!, but be safe and not repeat the Texas A&M bonfire project collapse of 20 or so years ago. Better yet, Lawrence should make this a annual event with a "Burning Man" like theme, say at the "Sesquicentennial Park" near Clinton Lake. Would give some real relevance to that remote, underthought edifice!

Commenting has been disabled for this item.