Thousands of people packed a downtown Las Vegas area Saturday night to take in the spectacle of a 24-foot-tall colorful art project ceremoniously set ablaze in an expression of the creativity of community and the human spirit, event organizers said.
Carmella Gadsen, a 23-year-old Las Vegas resident, said she got to paint on the Life Cube, built two weeks ago to allow community members to express themselves artistically through painting or drawing on the cube, and by adding “Wish-Sticks” celebrating their hopes and dreams.
“It’s been a beautiful experience,” Gadsen said Saturday night, noting she also came to the event two days ago. ” People were hula-hooping, dancing, and a DJ was playing music,” she said. “A girl gave me a hula hoop and we danced together.”
Tatiana Newcomb, a 33-year-old Las Vegas resident, waited with enthusiasm for a fire ceremony to culminate with the structure being set on fire.
“I’ve never been to a burn, and I’m excited to experience it,” Newcomb said.
So too were many others who attended the festive events Saturday night. Life Cube organizers said Sunday that they estimate “thousands” watched the burn ceremony.
Hours before the Life Cube went up in flames Saturday, the project’s creator Scott Cohen reflected on how he got to where he is today.
Born in upstate New York in the 1960s to 15- and 17-year-old parents, Cohen’s future success in life may have seemed anything but certain.
“I felt like a lot of people looked at me and said, ‘There’s a kid who’s got everything stacked against him,’” Cohen said. “I didn’t have any money for college, so I started writing down my goals and dreams.”
Since then, Cohen has traveled across the country and worked in nearly a dozen industries as everything from a cook to an Internet entrepreneur.
On Saturday afternoon, though, at the Llama Lot at Ninth and Fremont streets in downtown Las Vegas, Cohen looked like he was exactly where he should have been all along.
Something ignited inside Cohen nearly a decade ago while he was attending Burning Man, a weeklong event held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.
“I saw art in a completely different way,” he said. “I’ve been to art galleries, but you couldn’t touch anything, and there you could climb and write on everything.”
Cohen decided to once again write down his dreams, goals and aspirations for the future. He decided to work toward his goal of “coming back someday as an artist,” by devoting his energy and creativity to artistic endeavors.
During the 2011 Burning Man, Cohen debuted the first Life Cube Project, which encourages people to write down their goals, dreams, wishes and aspirations on “Wish-Stick” postcards that are then placed in the cubelike structure later burned during a fire ceremony.
“The first one I created was terrible. It looked corporate; the colors weren’t creative and it was embarrassing,” Cohen said. “As the week went on, I was ready to take it down, but people came down asking for ‘Wish-Sticks,’ and I thought, all right, maybe this isn’t so stupid after all.”
After it was over, Cohen contemplated moving onto another artistic project, but Life Cube enthusiasts wouldn’t let him.
“I kept getting calls asking, ‘Are you going to do it again?’ so I began building the second Life Cube,” he said. “This time, I wanted it to be more creative and interactive.”
Following the 2012 and 2013 Life Cubes at Burning Man, Cohen thought again about ceasing Life Cube altogether, but the calls kept coming.
While at a conference, Cohen met a Las Vegas man who was talking about how the downtown was experiencing a renewal.
“I stopped him and introduced myself because I wanted to create (Life Cube) in Las Vegas,” Cohen said. “He invited me, and I spent one year getting approvals and came up with a plan to host it in the middle of downtown Las Vegas in 2014.”
And last month, Cohen was back in downtown Las Vegas building a 24-foot-tall structure complete with pillars, posts and multiple levels for artists to spill their creative juices on before it goes up in flames.
“If you burn it to the ground, there’s no more cube, so there’s finality to the installation,” he said. “Also, it’s spiritual to see your goals and dreams go up into the universe. It’s a powerful thing that I feel in my heart.”
Las Vegas artist Danielle Duffey said she has developed a deeper understanding of the project’s concept.
She painted two murals inside Life Cube, helped build 160 smaller 4-by-4 “satellite” cubes, which were brought to local schools for children to put their wishes in and were place around the event Saturday, and donated her graphic design services for staff badges, banners and signs.
One of the murals Duffey painted inside the cube was of a woman hula-hooping. She spent more than an hour on it, and when she came back to look at it the next day another artist had painted over it.
“I’ve been an artist my whole life, so the idea of it not being permanent took some getting used to,” she said. “I’m starting to understand the concept more, which is that nothing lasts forever and to live in the now. Those are both great lessons in life, and this has bettered my life.”
This may be the last time downtown Las Vegas hosts the Life Cube, as Cohen said he’s hoping to take it to other cities across the U.S. as well as internationally.
“I’d like to take it to another city next year,” he said. “This may be my last time in Las Vegas, but you never know.”
Once Life Cube was left an ashen pile on the pavement Saturday night, Cohen said his work was still not over.
“I’ll be shoveling coal until sunrise,” he said. “It’ll be my sacred time.”
After he’s finished, Cohen said he’ll walk back to where he’s staying and collapse into bed.
“It feels like I’m involved in a sleep deprivation experiment right now, but it’s been magical,” he said. “I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, and I’ve given my heart and soul into this project and this community.”
Review-Journal writer Raven Jackson contributed to this report. Contact reporter Ann Friedman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4588. Find @AnnFriedmanRJ on Twitter.