San Francisco

Artist Builds Macabre Chapel in Petaluma Warehouse

Michael Garlington gave the pair of opulent doors covered in macabre faces and skulls a firm tug, setting off a deep groan as the doors surrendered, revealing a towering golden hill of statuettes.

“Welcome to the Totem of Confessions,” he said grinning.

Garlington stepped inside the tower, covered every inch in images and paper cutouts. For the past few months, Garlington has been constructing his version of a chapel inside a Petaluma warehouse. The project is destined for the Burning Man Arts festival in Nevada next month. But unlike most church builders who built their edifices to serve a higher power, Garlington built his to serve his photographs.

The chapel, built from paper and wood, occupied the majority of the warehouse. The exterior was covered in Garlington’s stark and moody black and white images — animals with halos, and eerie portraits. Its main portal was a pair of doors inspired by the sculptor Rodin’s famous Gates of Hell, opening to an inner chamber.

“I want people to come in and see that detail and look into it and wonder,” Garlinton said.

An interior “confessional” featured tiny rooms where visitors could unload their mental burdens. An altar featured a picture of Timothy Leary, whose ashes are set to be interned in the building.

“I really do it with humor,” Garlington said. “If it’s a little dark I find people find it interesting.”

Garlington started taking photographs as a kid — his parents owned a black and white photo printing studio in San Francisco. Two decades ago his mother bought him a 4 x 5 Graflex camera for Christmas. It’s been his main instrument ever since, capturing his meticulously staged dark and haunting images.

Eventually, Garlington started building elaborate frames to house his photos. The frame holding a picture he called the “procession of tea party,” was outlined in china dishes and even a tea pot. Another frame was draped in an American flag with religious statues flanking its image.

But Garlington’s visions outgrew his frames - so he decided to build what will eventually be a five-story chapel to hold the images. He sees the structure as a really big picture frame.

“So this is here to me just a really large portal into these visions,” he said, taking-in the chapel’s image-laden facade.

Garlington and his partner Natalia Bertotti spend their days filling every square inch of the chapel with decorations. Garlington collected hundreds of small chotskies including religious statues at garbage dumps and yard sales. He made rubber molds and cast hundreds more of them in plaster, forming a chaotic golden mound with them inside the chapel.

“People are just amazed by the amount of detail there is,” said Bertotti.

Bertotti and Garlington found inspiration for the project while touring churches in Europe. They were moved by the soaring ceilings and religious imagery of saints and sinners. They infused the chapel with religious iconography.

“So just the amount of time that would’ve taken for someone to do it just blows my mind,” Bertotti said. “Because now I know how long those things take.”

But like a photograph, Garlington’s creation will only occupy a small sliver of time. At Burning Man, the 50 foot piece will be viewed by tens of thousands of revelers before it’s burned, along with the ashes of Timothy Leary, which were in the care of a friend. Garlington has wrestled with the reality of destroying something he’s put so much love into.

“As I do this I ask myself that question constantly; how can i spend hours and hours and just let it go?” Garlington asked. “But one of these days the Mona Lisa will go. Everything will go.”

Until it’s demise, Garlington is working feverishly to finish the bottom floor of the chapel before it’s shipped off to the desert to be assembled. Before returning to his day’s work, he paused to look over the chapel’s imposing doors and its photograph-covered walls.

“Nobody owns art — you play with it and you walk with it a while,” he said. “But to pass it on is my absolute dream in life.”

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