SALT LAKE CITY — It was Kirk Jellum’s first art project, now his 40-foot by 30-foot "Praying Mantis" will be part of a $350 million redevelopment project in downtown Las Vegas.
An aerospace engineer-turned large-scale metal artist, Jellum designed and built the unusual vehicle that he and his wife took to Burning Man in August of 2010. The "Burning Man Project" first began in 1986 with just a handful of people on a beach in San Francisco. Now, the weeklong event attracts nearly 50,000 to the western Nevada desert. The event is about art, in all forms.
The "Praying Mantis" has a neck that can be raised 35 feet into the air and the antennae shoot 20-foot flames. The creation was mounted on a 1983 GMC dump truck and driven 500 miles to Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno in western Nevada two years ago.
The mantis has made appearances at several events. Recently, the one-of-a-kind creation caught the attention of Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh. Jellum’s wife, Kristen Ulmer, said Hsieh started asking her husband some odd questions.
“Finally it came out that he actually wanted to buy it,” she said.
"Mantis" was never built with the intention of selling it, so they sold it for how much they put into it. Hsieh is investing $350 million of his own money into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. The development will be a combination of retail and residential buildings, but art will be front and center.
“It's (the 'Praying Mantis') going to be the entry piece into a shipping container retail space,” he said. “He’s taking shipping containers and tricking them out into a hipster-like retail space.”
Ulmer never imagined selling the mantis. She said the couple didn’t realize there was even a market for such a thing. When they sold it, there were a few tears shed. “It felt a bit like we were selling one of our children, but we didn’t have a problem with it,” she said with a big laugh.
"Mantis" led to Jellum’s next big creation. A wealthy investor saw the mantis and wanted his own vehicular bug, so Jellum built him “The Scorpion.” It started out as a 1993 Utah Department of Transportation boom truck. The contraption weighs about 15,000 pounds. It’s designed after an emperor female scorpion, just 150 times larger. It’s 53 feet long, 45 feet wide and 38 feet tall.
The arms and legs of "The Scorpion" move, flames shoot out of its tail, and there's computerized LED lighting and a very loud stereo.
Modeling the arms, pincers and claws were the hardest part of that project, Jellum said. These days, "The Scorpion" sits in Jellum’s workshop, waiting for its next appearance.
Meanwhile, he is working on his next creation: a giant hummingbird. He just needs an investor to bring his idea to life.
“It’ll maybe be 50 feet in the air, and who knows how wide the wings will be,” he said. “I’m actually going to articulate the wings, so they’ll move.”