The Flaming Lotus Girls and The Serpent Mother.

The Flaming Lotus Girls and The Serpent Mother.

I  first met Charlie Gadeken in May of 2004. My Father and I went to the Box Shop in San Francisco for a Power Tool Drag Racer test
and build day. While wondering around the yard I noticed a large collection of what had to be flame producing technology and Art. I
asked Charlie, "What the Heck is all of this stuff for?" Charlie told me that this was the home for The Flaming Lotus Girls. He then
explained to me that there was a group of woman and men that worked together to build LARGE art  projects for events like the Burning Man. Little did I know, that this was the beginning of a relationship with the Ultimate group of Industrial Fire Artists, free thinkers and
builders, I have ever had the privilege to work with. . Well in May of 2006 and we did the Power Tool Drag Races again. Of course I
met up with Charlie and mentioned that I needed to do a little welding on one of my racers. He told me to take it to the Box Shop.

That's when, I saw IT!
On one of the work tables was the first prototype of a vertebrae made out of mild steel. Taped to the walls of the Box Shop was an endless collection of (TO DO) lists, parts lists, drawings, schematics, plumbing diagrams, ECT. . Also there was a small detailed model of the Serpent Mother with it's tail wrapped around an Egg. When I saw Charlie at the races, I asked him how big is this thing? He said about 165 feet long. I asked how long did it take you to make that vertebrae? He said "About two days, but the real ones will be made from stainless steel".  I asked how many are you going to make? Charlie said "about 45 of the large vertebrae and about 30 smaller ones plus four or five simpler ones to cover the hydraulics for the neck going to the head".  I said, "Your going to cut, bend, shape and weld all of that stainless steel sheet metal, build a heavy pipe frame, add 41 propane poofers, a five axis hydraulic powered head, plumb this
machine and build the electronic controls and write the control software in less than three months!!  Charlie said "Yep".
I replied "Your crazy man!" he just smiled...

Fortunately Charlie has A lot of good motivated artists, engineers, structural welders, metal sculptures, pyro plumbers, electronic engineers and programers to help make the Girls dreams come true. The Flaming Lotus Girls Include..

Aimee Eade,Aly HeinEric Stahl, Angela Knowles, Annie Geluardi, Ariel & Jon Spear,
Baba Frey, B'anna Federico, Brent Coons, Carly Perez, Caroline Miller,
Carson Best, Catherine Lynch, Cathy Lynch, Cecelia Camenga,
Charles J. Gallagher, Charlie Gadeken, Charlotte Sanford,Cheryl Fralick,
Colinne Hemrich, Cory, Olivier Bonin, Dan DasMann, Dan Ramsauer,
Dave Best, Dave X, David Ellsworth, Epona and Phil, Eric Smith, Flare
Gaspo, Geoff Leland, Gole Mawaz-Khan, Hazmatt Snyder, India Farrier,
Jack Schroll, Jacqulynn Schmitz, James Stauffer, Jen Clemente,
Jeremy Travis, Jessica Bruder, Jessica Hobbs, Jill Manthei,
Joe Romano, John Berens, John DeVenezia, John Wilson, Jon Foote,
Jordana Joseph, Josh Hunter Judy Castro, Karen Cusolito,
Kezia Zichichi, Kiki Pettit Lani, Laura Kimpton, Lee Chubb, Lee Sonko,
Liam McNamara, Lynn Bryant, Mark Farrier, Marlies Tallman Mary Newsom,
Matt Cline, Michael & Lorelei, Michael Curry, Michael Prados,
Michelle Palmer, Moira Mcnamara, Naemi Frey, Nick, Nicola Ginzler,
Olivia Sawi, Oona Squire, Paul, Phil Spitler, Pouneh Mortazavi, Ray,
Rebecca (Hot metal) Anders, Rich Humphrey, Rosa Anna Defilippis,
Sara Peyrot, Scott Cotner, Scott Sparky Bartlett, Shanon,
Sharon Burke, Shawna Shandrick, Simon, Simone Davalos
Simone Sigrid Marticke, Stella Rubenstein, Steve Monahan,
Steve Nelson, Steven T. Jones, Sue Duesberg,Suzun Hughes,
Tad Rollow, Tamara Li, Tasha Berg, Tori Tait, Vanessa Montiel Waschka
Wendy Blackburn, Will Flare, Xanat, Yasmin Mawaz-Khan,


The design drawings, parts lists and budget (plus a miscellaneous lipstick fund) were written up in a proposal and submitted the Burning Man in January.  Most of the funding for this project came from a $60,000 grant from the Burning Man which didn't arrive until May. Nothing like a little time pressure to get the Girls motivated.

The Build
In all reality the next time I saw the girls was in early June at The Fire Arts festival in Oakland Ca. They had already built the head the
hydraulic jaw mechanism and the mounting for the first three cylinders and about 20 ft of the spine with five poofers and it's vertebrae
plus the teeth were burning . I couldn't believe it! They had a fully working first section with fire and the basic hydraulic head movement
done in about one month. This took a maximum effort from all of the girls and they worked on the project day and night whenever they
could get time to go to the shop. (keep in mind that these folks have jobs and life's like everyone else). Well during this build cycle many
of their life's were put on hold and they were less than one third done. This pattern of self sacrifice would continue for another two
months of very hard work.
Of course (as usual) after the show they put me to work disassembling the machine and loading it on the truck. The girls have a term
called VHT's (That's lotuseze for VERY HEAVY THINGS) lifting 250 to 300 lb sections of the mother into a truck is definitely quality
time. I  have never have figured out why folks think that Fat guys (like me) like to lift heavy things.

At this point there was a lot of concern that they may not finish the project. So they put out a call for help on the internet. So I started
going to S.F. on the weekends. Working at the Box Shop with the girls is a unique experience. As a man your supposed to assist the girls
and leave your (male attitude) at the door. The girls say "It takes a great man to be a Flaming Lotus Girl". The girls are in charge of the
project, so you ask, "What do you need done?" and you are given a task to perform for them. If Pouneh Mortazavi (Shop Leader) or another girl sees
that your not busy, she will ask if you have you ever cut pipe before. If you say No, she will say "Well grab that piece of pipe and bring
it over to the saw and I'll teach you how." After you cut your first piece to length. She will look at it and say "Oh that's a good job, now
cut 45 more like it." This is how your days usually go at the Box Shop. You never know what you will be doing.. But you will be doing
something. I should also mention that the girls have a unique way of solving problems . They discuss their next step in groups and (every persons) idea is explored and possibly tested until a solution is found that is both easy and practical. Having worked in shops usually with an Alpha male telling me exactly what to do and when to do it. I found this procedural difference to be both interesting and a beautiful
thing to witness and be a part of.   The majority of the girls the Box Shop may have never cut, drilled, shaped, ground, heated or welded
metal or created endless feet of plumbing before they joined this group. It is the goal of The Flaming Lotus Girls to Empower women by
teaching them skills in metal work and Industrial Fire Art. Hopefully they will take their new skills and ability's and continue to create
their (own art) as well as help out with the group projects.
The Motto of the Flaming Lotus Girls hangs on the wall in the Box shop, it says simply. WE CAN DO IT!
 The girls use several types of  hand drawings, blueprints, schematics and CAD drawings.
 Cardboard Aided Design and Plywood Aided Design are also used when building the templates for metal cutting.
Also steel  jigs are used to hold the parts in place for tack and finish welding.

Metal shaping

Lynn Bryant taking hammer marks out of the copper egg shell on the English wheel. Lynn and her team were also responsible for the construction and design of the Egg. Lynn told me, that she's real good at making wagon wheels and elbow macaroni after bending all of the steel tubing used in the egg's framework

Rebecca ( Hot Metal) Anders and Charlie Gadeken weld yet another stainless steel vertebrae together. The  respirators are worn to protect the girls from the dust and gasses and nasty chromium by-products are produced when  grinding or welding stainless steel. It gives you a BAD headache. The manufacture painted them pink for some reason.  Although HOT Pink is the official color of any tool or part CLAIMED (often by convenience) by the girls at the Box Shop.

Building the vertebras took hundreds of hours and lots of people. Each one is made from five pieces of stainless steel that is plasma cut using wooden guide templates. Then it is hand hammered  with a ball peen hammer on a steel shot been bag to create the curves. The edges are rolled with a hammer over the head of a railroad spike mounted in a vice. The hammer marks are removed with a pneumatic hammer and the English wheel. Parts are curved by running them through a roller then they are mounted in a jig and they are tack welded and hammered some more. Then they are seam welded with a tri-mix shielding gas and a MIG welder using 304 stainless steel wire. After that the welds are ground smooth, they are welded again and ground some more, then they are polished. Countless hammer strikes and twelve hour work days made this all possible. You really wouldn't want to arm wrestle with the women and men that pulled off this LITTLE part of the project.

 Annealing copper with a big torch to make it soft for shaping. Once shaped, the metal is then hammered until it work hardens to hold its shape and then it is soldered together to make larger pieces.

The Poofers

Fuel is provided to the Serpent through two separate systems, the 'continuous flame' or burners, running off two 88 gallon liquid feed propane tanks leading into a vaporizer. These devices boil the propane from the main storage tank and prevent the tank from getting cold and freezing the propane. (The freezing effect comes from the high fuel flow rates and a subsequent pressure drop created when running lots of burners or poofing). Without the vaporizers the Serpent Mother wouldn't have worked for long.  The vaporizer sucks liquid propane from the tanks and into a chamber where the liquid is vaporized and the pressure created by the vaporization pushes the propane through three 1/2 inch feed pipes underground, which is then split again into 1/4 inch hose before it gets to the ball valve farm.
Ignition is provided by a horizontal burner that is made from 1/2 inch steel pipe about 12 inches long (some sections were a little longer) - The burners are fueled from the Fuel depot and their gas flow is controlled by ball valves The multitude of ball valves were buried underground in an enclosure near the egg in the center of the sculpture. Once the valves were opened fuel could flow to their respective burners. A pressure regulator was used at the Fuel depot vaporizer to adjust the rate of flow to the burners. Some of the burners on the tail section were further controlled to reduce the size of the flames that were close to the folks standing next to them
The burner pipe is capped on one end and has several small 1/16  inch holes drilled in it to act as fuel jets. The burner pipe is
covered with stainless steel wool to diffuse the fuel across the burner. The steel wool also makes the burner mostly wind proof. The burner were electronically lit using cannibalized stun guns. The electronics team mentioned to me, that they got some very strange looks from the folks at the electronics store when they ordered 50 Stun Guns. Once the burners were lit the stun guns were turned off.

The 41 propane poofers that are placed on the spine of the Serpent Mother are basically rather large (momentary) flame throwers.
Basically propane is fed from a large 250 gallon tank to another Vaporizer. The fuel from the vaporizer was plumbed underground through four 1/2 inch ball valves and hoses to fill the fire extinguishers that act as expansion tanks and allow the fuel to vaporize some more and collect as the tanks fill. The fuel in the expansion tanks is fed to a 120 VAC electrically controlled normally closed gas valve through a 1/4 inch steel pipe. When the valve is opened the gas in the tank is released almost
instantly. POOF!!

The Poofers will each produce about 8 ft high fire balls for about 1-2 seconds. One of the interactive features of this beasty allows the Kids viewing this machine to push the 41 manual buttons mounted on the ribs for controlling the poofers on demand.
Every Kid should have the chance to fire a flame thrower on a giant snake from time to time.

Fuel lines wiring and of course Poofers!

Ball valve farm.
The plumbing team (Headed by Caroline Miller and Rosa Anna Defilippis) had the daunting task of cutting, fitting, sealing and testing about a billion feet (Maybe a bit less) of LPG hose, steel gas pipe, steel and brass fittings and a ton of valves and mounting hardware . Actually there are hundreds of connections and many folks spent time working with these components. Imagine spending several months of you life threading pipe and dreaming about plumbing nightmares and gas leaks. You might find it difficult to understand the dedication or obsession of this team, of course their work speaks for itself. Without the Pyro Princesses the Serpent Mother would have been a nice piece of sculpture. Because of the plumbing team the Mother is a warm and awe inspiring interactive experience for all who witness it in operation.

The Poofers also had a computer control system that allowed an operator to program firing sequences from a lap top computer.
Jessica Hobbes managed the electronics team. Rich Humphrey assembled the innards of the fire controller boxes, but the box part was built by many, many hands. Tad Rollow wrote the AVR firmware that makes the boxes go. Lee Chubb wrote the computer interface software. It's a MAX/MSP patch. Max/MSP is a graphical environment for music, audio, and multimedia. For more information about this software check out

The interface that Lee created is really very easy to use for the (end user) and fun to play with as well. Point and click poofing. Now that's an innovation in Fire Art.
The fire control boxes are ammunition boxes (Painted Hot Pink) with six 30 Amp sealed mechanical relays inside. There are six
outlets on the outside of each box that are independently controllable. Each box can hear all the traffic on the line. They
only react for their own address. The data travels at 19200 baud. A signal has to be constantly sent to each poofer control or the poofers would shut down. This was a important safety feature. You can also clone boxes, having more than one listen on an address. They are also completely overridden by the manual button boxes. The manual buttons are wired across the relay contacts so that a total computer failure would still provide us with a manual snake.

The brain is an ATMEL ATMEGA8 microcontroller. Each fire control box has an address, which is set by DIP  switches inside the box. They are all listening on an RS 485 network, run over XLR microphone cables. It's terminated at the end by a 120 Ohm resistor in an XLR plug.
There were some issues with  noise in the power and control systems We are switching coil valves with mechanical relays. So there
is a lot of noise generated when we turn them on and off. There was also some noise coming from the stun gun ignitor's, as well as all the other problems you have out there, like generator noise and static. The stun guns were only used to light the burners and then they were shut off. The electric gas valves on each poofer had a RC snubber circuit mounted across each coil. The nice thing about using embedded micro controllers is, if they lock up because of noise, you can unplug them and they Re-boot. They actually worked flawlessly.

There was also a LED lighting effect mounted in the Vertibrae. The LED's could be flashed in multiple patterns to add even more eye catching illumination to the sculpture.

CAD drawing courtesy of Mike Prados

The mechanics of the head assembly.

Mike Prados P.E. designed the mechanical and hydraulic system for the serpents head and neck

The Hydraulics for the Serpents head:
24000 lbs peak force capability at 2500 psi.
Hydraulic power pack pumps 1.3 GPM at 2000 psi (a bit less at 2500 psi peak.)
The Power pack is 2 HP electric pump, powered by 240 VAC.
5 double acting cylinders at 3.5 inch bore, 6 inch stroke
Approximately 120' of 3/8" steel braided hydraulic hose
4 CNC plasma cut gears, from 1/2 inch stainless steel plate
Teflon coated, steel backed bronze bushings on the lower joints, rated at 36,000 lbs load
Manual control was achieved with a set of mechanical relays driven by a joystick box using three separate arcade quality joysticks.
Limiting switches were attached to the hydraulic mounts and pivots to keep the cylinder from exceeding the mechanical limits of the sculpture. This kept the Serpent from eating itself.
Future control will be with an Atmel Atmega16 microcontroller, with potentiometers attached to the hydraulic mounts for position feedback.

CAD drawing courtesy of Phil Spitler

The Spine:
A couple of specs on the spine
160 feet uncoiled length (this includes the neck with the head, approx. 168 feet)
20 8 foot segments- 8 segments, 6 inch  diameter. pipe 6 segments, 4 inch diameter. pipe, 6 segments, 2 inch diameter. pipe
The archway is about 16 foot  tall. An 8 foot length of the 6 inch pipe weighs 180 lbs (before the vertebrae, flanges, plumbing, etc.)
The spine of the Serpent Mother is very massive even he flanges that couple the pipe sections together are about 1 inch thick steel.
Steve Monahan was responsible for most of the primary bending of the pipe on a custom built hydraulic powered pipe bending machine.
Steve also did most of the structural welding since he's a certified welder and these parts had to be very strong for safety.  There is also a ladder structure that the support ribs of the serpent connect to. The ladder structure is buried underground and is required to provide
stability for the spine. In talking to Michael Prados (our mechanical engineer), he told me that several factors were considered when the
dimensions for the spine were developed, including the open spans, the weight of the components and even wind loading from the high
velocity desert winds common in Northern Nevada.

 The Serpent Mother.

The Head:
The Serpents head is the size of a small automobile. It is built in two parts forming the upper and lower jaws. The support frame is made from aluminum tubing custom formed and welded. There are 64 hand made curved triangular stainless steel teeth of various lengths. The teeth were first plasma cut from sheet metal in 3 pieces and then welded together to form a hollow triangle. Intricate slots were plasma cut in the sides of the teeth to allow propane to flow from them. The teeth are mounted to a common rail stainless steel fuel line. Propane is fed through this line to and escapes through 1/16 inch holes under the support nipple that supports each tooth. The nipples have holes drilled them to act as air correctors. Basically this arrangement allows the teeth to work similar to a propane torch and produce a blue flame.  Rebecca (Hot Metal) Anders did quite a bit of testing and redesigning of this system. There was some discussion about making a blue flame and the intense heat produced and its possible Annealing (softening) effect on the aluminum structure. In testing with a infra red thermometer it was found to heat the aluminum to about 350 Deg F. which proved to be acceptable. The two large fangs are fed with a separate fuel line and also burn with a yellow to blue flame. Of course there also a forked tongue that shoots fire. The large Green eyes are made from glass custom poured and formed at the Crucible. The eyes are illuminated with a green LASER beam. The Head is fleshed out with hand formed and hammered copper sheet.

photo courtesy of Caroline Miller.

photo courtesy of Caroline Miller.

Sequential firing of the poofers.

photo courtesy of Caroline Miller

Firing the Egg

photo courtesy of Caroline Miller.

The Egg: The tail of the Serpent Mother coils around the Egg. The Egg frame is made from steel tubing that was hand curved. The frame is covered in hand formed copper sheet.  There are 5 sections that open to revel the Methanol fueled flame system. This system uses nitrogen gas to pressurize a storage tank filled with liquid Methanol. The pressurized liquid is fed through underground hoses to 5 electrically controlled valves. Each valve can be individually fired, the high pressure liquid is sprayed through nozzles across a propane burner and it ignites. Boric acid is mixed with the methanol to provide a green flame. When firing the Egg, no one was allowed to stand within a 150 ft radius of the sculpture. Some folks mentioned to me that they felt rain drops on Saturday night. I told them,  It wasn't water you felt falling from the sky it was un-burned fuel.  Once I mentioned this fact, most folks understood the reason for the safety perimeter.

The nightly fuel consumption for the Serpent Mother was about 500 gallons of Propane and about 30 gallons of Methanol (when the Egg was demonstrated)

Ya know, if a 260 lb Redneck Garage Builder Man can learn humility and understanding in an Industrial and yet Nurturing shop
environment, all the while working with (talented and amazing woman and men). Then Maybe, Just Maybe, there's hope for us all....
I've done a lot of things in my lifetime. But I will always cherish that special day when I finally became a Girl.
(Well a Flaming Lotus Girl) that is...
It is impossible to list all of the individual work provided by all of the members of the Flaming Lotus Girls.
This interactive animatronic flaming sculpture is definitely a Team Effort and hopefully it will inspire others to think big.
In my opinion, The Girls ROCK!

Build Safe, Build Mean, Build Strong, Flaming Lotus Girls, whoever and wherever you are...
Any Dream is possible, when you work together. (SLAMER)

Probably should add a disclaimer something like this for legal reasons.

 Building Fire art can be very dangerous. The skills in plumbing, welding, fire control and  fire safety demonstrated by the Flaming Lotus Girls were
developed over years of consulting with experts in many different industrial disciplines and a lot of learning from mistakes.
In no way should you try and duplicate their efforts at home.
The Flaming Lotus Girls, Myself (Steven Kirk Nelson) and SERVO magazine claim no responsibility for your efforts or mistakes made using this technology.