From afar, David Best’s temples resemble a Western take on Jain or Japanese places of worship: thirty-five feet of cut pinewood arranged in mosaic patterns of swirls and flowers, reaching into a crisp peak pointing toward the heavens. Up close, names of loved ones can be seen written on the delicate layers of wood; photos and memorabilia from a time lost are sandwiched behind the structure.
Each temple is unique, but they have one thing in common: They all go up in flames.
Twenty years ago, artist and sculptor Best was preparing materials for his next sculpture at Burning Man, an annual festival in the middle of the desert, with his mentee Michael Hefflin. According to Best, Hefflin was a sword-swallowing, Shakespeare-reading hell-raiser who was building his own three-wheel motorcycle. One night, while working with Best, Hefflin went out on his Ducati and died going 140 mph. At the funeral, Hefflin’s friends agreed he still would have wanted them to go to the desert.
They went to Burning Man in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, and Best got to work with Hefflin’s friends using scrap wood he found behind the toy factory next to his studio in northern California. As they worked, it became clear to them that they were building a tribute to the friend they had lost. During the process, word got out, and about 100 people came by and added names of people they had lost themselves. Then they unceremoniously threw a match into the sculpture, poured some diesel, and watched it burn.
“Someone said it wouldn’t burn, and it burned like hell,” Best recalls.
Since then, Best has dedicated his life’s work to designing and building ornate yet ephemeral temples for communities that need healing. His temples at Burning Man have become a yearly fixture. More than 40,000 visitors, each with a unique past that needs to be released, have entered the temples during the event.
This year, Best has brought his carpentry and devoted crew to Coral Springs, where in collaboration with student and community volunteers, they are building the Temple of Time for the Parkland community, which is still reeling after the tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. The temple will open on the anniversary of the shooting and will remain open to visitors until May, when the structure will be set on fire.
“When I first came here, I would have thought I was addressing 17 kids who were murdered, 17 kids who were wounded, 200 people who were on the scene. But the number of people who are impacted by this went way beyond the initial figure I had when I got here,” Best says. “The whole community has been affected.”
As soon as Best arrived about a month ago, he could sense the unresolved anger from parents still searching for a reason behind the massacre.
“It’s just the sheer agony of a parent wanting to find an answer as to why their child was murdered," Best says. "And they’re just looking for an answer, and I don’t know how they’re going to find that. It’s going to be difficult. I only hope for those people that they can go on with their lives.”
Initially, Best thought to name the structure Healing Temple or Temple of Healing but quickly decided against it.
“There’s no way in hell we’re going to heal a murdered child,” he says.
Instead, Best and his crew decided on Temple of Time as a way of honoring the indefinite amount of time it will take for the community to deal with the tragedy.
“This is not something that is going to happen overnight. I’m not pretentious enough to think that I’m offering something that is going to change someone’s life,” Best says. “The loss of a loved one or a child is going to be with them for the rest of their life — I have no intention to try to erase that; I don’t believe I could.”
The City of Coral Springs was applying for a 2018 Bloomberg Public Art Challenge Grant and immediately thought of Best’s work.
“It’s essential that all the artists have some way of working with the community that we saw as a benefit, so it’s all about engagement, to try to bring people together after what happened on February 14,” says Emily Blumenfeld, public art consultant to the City of Coral Springs.
Best recalls being called about the project and asked if he could handle working with a community processing such heavy issues.
“Unfortunately, my specialty is talking to people who have lost someone. This seems to be what I’m able to do. That’s what the temple crew has been about from the very beginning,” Best says. “The crew was ready to go as soon as we heard about it.”
Best’s crew is composed of people who sought him out throughout the years, most after suffering tragedies of their own and wanting a cathartic release, but mostly to do something for someone else.
One crew member, Scott Prusso, got involved with Best in 2014 after his younger brother committed suicide that year. Prusso had been to Burning Man a couple of times and wanted to work on a temple to add his brother's name. This will be his fifth temple.
“The thought that came to me was the whole tradition of letting go of the impermanence and sending your thoughts and prayers into the heavens,” Prusso recalls. “It was a feeling of relief for me. There was a connection while I was building because every day I was thinking of him and I was building that for him, and to have that released was my way of letting go.”
Although fire rituals originate from ancient ceremonies for purification or prayer, Best’s temples are not made with a spiritual intention or from a specific religious affiliation. He is simply the carpenter, building the structure for the community to bring their own spirituality to it. Instead, his intention with each temple is to affect one person.
“We don’t build it for 78,000 people. Our intention is to hope that one person will find some sort of beginning of a healing process,” Best says. “I make an empty structure — it doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a pretty shape. And then people come and they put in their religion, their faith, their anger. Whatever they’ve got, they put it [in the temple], and they develop their mythology. It doesn’t matter what we believe. It matters what they believe.”
As far as the structure itself, Best explains it must be delicate yet strong. Delicate so that a person who is emotionally vulnerable can feel like they can go inside and feel safe; and strong because it must absorb those emotions and provide solace.
Best has welcomed student volunteers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and members of the community to work on the temple. One group, ScentsAbility, a nonprofit that provides job training, employment, and housing for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has dedicated time to constructing the temple.
“We have one person in our group who goes to Douglas and was in the building during the shooting, and it was very difficult,” says Bonnie Schmidt, founding director of ScentsAbility. “We have three volunteers who are students there ,and one in particular, Zachary, lost his cousin in the shooting. ScentsAbility has been his happy place, so we’re doing this in support of Zachary and his cousin Jaime.”
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Michael D’Angelo, one of the members of ScentsAbility, asked Best why he burns such an intricately designed and beautiful structure. Best responded, “Do you have any pain?” D’Angelo said yes. Best continued, “Give me your hand.” Best extended his open palm, and D’Angelo rested his own on top. “I’ll burn it,” Best said, symbolically pulling out the pain with his other hand.
“Well, I have a lot of pain,” D’Angelo said.
Best replied, “Then I’ll burn it all."
Temple of Time. Thursday, February 14, through May at 9551 W. Sample Rd., Coral Springs. The temple will be burned in May on a date to be announced. Admission is free.