Chris Cleary to Burn a Wooden Champ Sculpture on New Year's Eve | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Chris Cleary to Burn a Wooden Champ Sculpture on New Year's Eve


Published December 19, 2022 at 5:57 p.m.
Updated December 20, 2022 at 5:23 p.m.

Champ burning last New Year's Eve in Burlington - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Champ burning last New Year's Eve in Burlington
The Champ sculpture that Chris Cleary is building in his Jericho Center front yard will burn to embers on New Year’s Eve in a multicolored blaze at the Burlington waterfront. But just because his work will go up in flames doesn’t mean Cleary is letting aesthetic details slide.

Spikes and other ornate elements of Champ are made of walnut, mahogany and tiger maple. The pieces will adorn the sea monster’s scaled body, which Cleary is crafting from more than 1,000 cedar shingles. Hidden in Champ's neck and belly are secret compartments that will hold the pyrotechnics that'll produce a fiery show on New Year’s Eve.

“We wasted four or five hours figuring out how to keep those compartments mysterious,” Cleary, a 47-year-old sculptor, said.

The burning of Champ is part of Burlington City Arts' Highlight celebration on New Year’s Eve at Waterfront Park. The sculpture will be set ablaze after the fireworks on Saturday, December 31, at about 8:15 p.m., according to BCA.

“It’s ephemeral art,” Cleary said. “It’s sculpture meets performing arts.”

Cleary is building Champ outside his 1850s house, which he’s renovating. That means Cleary can use wood salvaged from his house in Champ's frame.  It also means Cleary’s carport is gone, so there’s no outdoor covered space under which to work. Snow collecting on a 20-by-15-foot  wooden sculpture that’s set to catch fire in 12 days isn’t ideal. But Cleary isn’t fazed by this or other environmental factors.

“We’ll probably bring it to Burlington on the 29th,” he said of  Champ. “We like to let it hang out a couple of days, but not long enough to get vandalized.”

Chris Cleary and Champ under construction - SALLY POLLAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sally Pollak ©️ Seven Days
  • Chris Cleary and Champ under construction

This is the second year Cleary  will burn a Champ that he designed and built for the city's New Year's Eve celebration. The 2022 model is bigger, he said. The framework is made of  11 wooden discs, or "oversized toilet seats," as Cleary calls them.  The sculpture is made to be structurally sound and strong enough to travel, yet with built-in weak points that determine how it will collapse on burning.

“I love to know how it’s gonna fall apart,” Cleary said.

The Champ project, which Cleary is working on mostly by himself, complements his house renovation. The home-build requires levels, tape measures and “science,” Cleary said. When he goes outside to build Champ, “I get to kick the tape measure aside and disregard the level,” Cleary said. “It’s just so freeing.”

A few members of a “skeletal crew” drop by to help when they have time. This includes Cleary’s childhood friend Matt Speroni, a teacher in the Northeast Kingdom. “We like to do projects together,” Cleary said. “And he’s good at everything he does.”
Chris Cleary's 2021 Champ sculpture - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Chris Cleary's 2021 Champ sculpture
Another friend, Nate Coppock, is assisting with the cedar shingles, which are shaped with a jigsaw. Cleary calls this work "shingle therapy." If he's stuck on another aspect of the project, he can always saw a shingle.

Also on the team is Cleary’s nephew, Alex Bergeron, who will help with delivery and installation. This will involve a roughly 20-mile drive with a 15-foot-tall sculpture standing in the back of the truck.

Cleary's buddy Andres Kintero stops by when he can to work on the piece. The two connected last year when Kintero contacted Cleary to ask if he knew of any Burning Man-type projects in the area.

“‘You want to see what we’re doing?’" Cleary recalled telling him. “‘We’re building a fucking sea monster, bro.’"

Finally, a vital assist came from Cleary’s neighbor, who lives “over the river and through the woods." When Cleary couldn’t get lath from his usual supplier, putting the project in jeopardy, the neighbor came to the rescue with a sawmill.  He milled local pine and delivered the lumber on his tractor.

“What can seem like a stifling hurdle catapults itself into a beautiful thing,” Cleary said. “And it reinspires you.”

Cleary is a fire breather with a performance troupe called Cirque de Fuego. He ignited Champ last winter by breathing  fire on it. Over the summer, Cleary became sick with chemical pneumonia from inhaling ignition fuel, he said. “It was rugged,” Cleary said.

Chris Cleary with a  Champ cedar shingle - SALLY POLLAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sally Pollak ©️ Seven Days
  • Chris Cleary with a Champ cedar shingle
He's no longer fire-breathing to set his work aflame. "That’s why I have a beard,” Cleary said. He won't reveal how he and his wife, Kim Cleary, plan to set Champ on fire this year.

When it's completed, the Champ sculpture will have taken about a month to build. On New Year's Eve, it will burn in less than an hour, Cleary said. He enjoys walking around his artwork and watching it burn from every angle. He’s gratified that other people will be part of the experience, too.

“I love getting people together and making them all smile,” Cleary said. “I truly believe that community art should be community. Nobody owns this sculpture. This is everybody’s.”