TONASKET – Some things just defy description, and A Cavallo is one of them.
It doesn’t mean an attempt won’t be made, but really?
Quill Hyde, Tonasket’s artist/engineer extraordinaire, designed and built the metal structure with a little help from a lot of friends, transforming what is best characterized as a pile of junk into a fantastical, ominously charming, miraculously monstrous mobile party wagon.
And that doesn’t do it justice.
“Here it is, in all its hanky-janky glory,” says Hyde of his 13,000 pound pirate ship/carousel on wheels. “I’m looking forward to spending more time on it to get it to the next level.”
The next level? One can only imagine what that might be. Or, more accurately, only Quill Hyde could probably dream that up.
Which, of course, is how A Cavallo came to be in the first place.
Hyde was living in New York City, designing and building the automation for Broadway shows. Before the economy crashed it was a good living, but not necessarily the best fit for an engineer with such a persistent artistic bent.
“I was always an artist calling myself an engineer,” he says. “I was really good at doing mechanical things.
“Then I went to Burning Man in 2006 and it hit me — there was a place for the kind of art I wanted to make.”
Burning Man itself resists description, but for the sake of the story, it’s an annual event that gathers nearly 50,000 people into a dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for a week or so each summer.
“(Burning Man’s mission) is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society,” to quote from its mission statement.
In other words, the perfect place for an artist/engineer to discover and explore some other possibilities for himself and his work.
“I came back and had this dream,” Hyde says. “I was standing on the deck of a metal ship. There was fire up above and a band on the back. Somehow it had these horses — I just remember the fire, the feel of the thing, so I started writing up a grant proposal for the project.
“My friend Marlene came up to me shortly after and said she’d had a dream about it. She did a drawing of her vision of what I’d been talking about. Fire, horses, a cage for people to dance in. People were yelling, ‘A cavallo! A cavallo!’ Which is ‘by horse’ or ‘let’s go!’ in Italian.”
Pronounced “ah ca-VA-lo,” he says it’s usually mispronounced as if it were Spanish.
“It’s a funny name,” he says. “I don’t really care anymore what they call it.
“At any rate, I got the grant and we built it for the first time in New York.”
Hyde admits the timing for the first attempt at A Cavallo may not have been the best.
“I was trying to finish all these big jobs,” he says now. “Blue Man Group, Little Mermaid, American Ballet Theater. So I didn’t get started until eight weeks before Burning Man, plus I had to get it out there.”
The project overflowed his shop, forcing him to drag portions out onto the sidewalk.
“I worked all day, designed and built all night,” Hyde says. “Plus my wife was pregnant. I had to push the horses and trusses out on the sidewalk and drag them back in. Pretty soon it turned into 24 hours a day moving it onto and off the sidewalk.
“I started the project with credit cards that were half full, and something like 20 or 30 grand in the bank. By the end, I was totally broke, the cards were maxed out and the economy crashed. There was no more work.
“It was unbelievably stressful, a nightmare.”
In its original incarnation, the sculpture broke down and fit into a trailer.
“I had to use a very ornate 3-D packaging program just to get a thousand little parts to fit in a box truck,” he says. “And then at Burning Man, we were pulling it out on the ground, with the sun beating own on us, and we’re thinking, ‘OK, I have to bolt together all this stuff?’ It took four days to put it together.
“That was how you did it in theater, so that was how I thought it through. I’d been away from the farm for too long; I’d forgotten about gooseneck trailers.”
Crash and Burn
Hyde jokes now that the nation could have studied his situation to see that an economic crash was coming.
“While I was doing the project, the economy stopped,” he says. “I was the leading economic indicator. The first thing they cut from the budget was the automation — the $5,000 winches. They just made the actors carry chairs off instead of machines.
“I was also automating rich people’s houses, like making their TVs fly around. And what is the first thing you cut from the budget? The flying TVs.”
Out of desperation, Hyde took on projects that actually cost him money, which didn’t end well.
“You have this idea about a business,” he says. “You try as hard as you can and it just doesn’t happen. So when they came to repossess my van, it was a relief. I asked if I could keep my stuff that was in the van, and when they let me, I was thanking the repo guys for letting me keep my own stuff.
“But it was a big transitional moment. I was no longer trying to save the business; I was just trying to get out of New York and figure something else out. At some point, you have to recognize that things aren’t working and change direction.”
All the talent in the world can only take you so far, it seems. Hyde wanted to come back to Tonasket, but even that was beyond his means at the time.
“Everything had fallen apart,” he says. “My marriage, my business. I was shattered and I had no money.
“I called my sister and asked if she could get me a shipping container so I could ship my shop stuff back to Tonasket. I had nowhere else to go. I just knew that here I could have a moment to figure it all out.”
Just about everything made it home to Tonasket, where Hyde rented his shop near the Tonasket Rodeo Grounds. Everything, except A Cavallo, left to rust in a barn in the Catskills that eventually collapsed on it.
“We got my stuff here, and it’s been great,” Hyde says. “I stepped back, got a big beam in the shop, found a used plasma cutter that has made all the difference in the world. If I’d have had one in New York I’d probably still be in business.”
Four years of rebuilding his life and doing odd jobs in the Okanogan led back to rescuing A Cavallo from the scrap metal “glue factory” in upstate New York.
“I had four years to think of what this project could be,” Hyde says. “I got the shop set up and my life straightened out. Then I got my friends in New York, and said, ‘You want to do it again?’
“Everybody was pretty excited about it.”
The Dream Reborn
The economy may still be down, but never underestimate a cadre of artists determined to get something done.
“We had four different massive fundraising parties,” Hyde says. “Mostly at my friend Shawn’s place, where we’re not allowed to have them any more. We raised about $15,000 at these ridiculous events.
We’d have bands, and the whole project has brought into it a group of very diverse individuals who have very successful careers doing other things, and for no money they got these things pulled together to make it happen. We had a Kickstarter campaign that brought in more.
“This project has made me more friends than anything else, which is what I appreciate about it the most.”
Finally, this past summer, Quill and his brother Barley, with some part-time help from others, constructed the redesigned A Cavallo after retrieving the parts from the original from its resting place in New York.
“We just stepped through it this summer,” Hyde says. “Barley did all the welding and cutting. It was a nice build; there were no big surprises and it had all been paid for.
“I’d had so much time to spend with it on the computer, I had some nice 3D renderings and the original drawings were pretty good.”
The Hydes put their farm roots back to work as the latest incarnation no longer has to be fully disassembled. Parts of it come down, get folded up and its ready to hit the road without the nightmare of a four-day set-up waiting on the other end.
“It’s so much better now,” Hyde says. “It needs a few things to make set-up a little easier, but that will come as we do it more to even know what that is. Right now, I’m pretty low-energy after putting all this work into it.”
In late August, the reborn A Cavallo made the trek back to Burning Man, where it won a number of awards and was the center of plenty of attention. With a platform that kept a band suspended at one end, it held up under the weight of more than 80 revelers at a time.
“It’s meant to be a parade piece, too,” says Quill Hyde. “You’ll see it in Omak and Tonasket for sure. It was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to make, and after all that, here it is.”
More about the project can be found at Quill’s A Cavallo website.