First Fry-day

Meet the designer of Lucky Lady Lucy, a giant, sizzling showgirl who will go up in flames at the First Vegas Burn!

Merritt Pelkey always knew something about setting shit on fire in the Nevada desert, having attended Burning Man, the annual weeklong art event in Black Rock City, for the last 10 years. Pelkey, whose day job is keyboard technician for Huey Lewis and the News, has always taken photos, but never considered himself a bona fide artist.

That perception changed six months ago, when he and others began to design and build Lucky Lady Lucy, a 20-foot wooden statue of a showgirl. “I never had the right clothes to be an artist,” the 47-year-old jokes. “But when I and others in our local Burning Mondays group began meeting to talk about a sculpture to represent Vegas, I thought about it more seriously.”

The original Lucy debuted last September, when Pelkey and fellow Las Vegas burners (local folks who make the yearly pilgrimage to Black Rock) approached the city’s Cultural Affairs Office. After securing a nonprofit grant from the Society for Experimental Arts and Learning, construction began on an effigy in Boulder Plaza, behind the Arts Factory. That effigy, Lucy, went up in glorious flames as part of the festivities at last year’s Burning Man.

Now Lucy has been resurrected. First Friday managing partner Joey Vanas, who attended Burning Man last year, approached Pelkey and his crew with an idea: to set fire to Lucky Lady Lucy 2.0 on the “urban playa” at Third Street and Colorado Avenue for March’s First Vegas Burn! The event marks the first-ever prominent public burning in Las Vegas.

Lucy is indeed a work of art. With a headdress and feathers made out of plywood, she comprises a vast and sophisticated assemblage of wooden poker chips. These chips are arranged pancake-style to form Lucy’s neck and limbs. She stands stall and proud, one lovely arm reaching to the desert sky, the other on her hip. Not a photo-realistic piece of art, Lucy is instead the ideal figurative icon of Las Vegas. She stands atop a base of two larger chips, ready to give herself to the flames of renewal.

Just as he did for the first Lucy, Pelkey rendered Lucy 2.0 on his computer via CAD (computer-aided design) software. After getting wood cut through connections at Southwest Technical Academy, more than 40 people from the community have, for the last six months, contributed countless hours of labor.

Lucy 2.0’s unveiling will feature performances by Nytronix and the Brotherhood of Flame, Art Car Extravaganza, the Dancetronauts and The Burning Opera. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh will do the honor of igniting Lucy. It will be a moment that, after months of sanding and cutting holes in pieces of wood, will likely foster a sense of accomplishment for—and bring tears in the eyes of—Pelkey and his colleagues.

“Lucy has really built a sense of community,” he says. “Half of the people who worked on her all these months never considered themselves artists before. Now they’re continuing to build and design things on their own.”

Pelkey adds that the event will be symbolic of the downtown Vegas renewal. “It’s about the flames of change and the rebirth of Arts District. Everyone wants downtown to flourish again. Lighting this icon will hopefully send a message of regeneration.”

“Fire has always served as gathering place,” Pelkey says. “For centuries, people have told stories around a campfire, a powerful motivator for humans.” Indeed, Pelkey and his wife talk about Lucy’s born-to-burn qualities every day. Sometimes they think: Wouldn’t it be great to keep her up a while longer? Other times they resolve: Let’s just get this over with.

“Regardless, working together on Lucy has been so rewarding,” Pelkey says. “It’s been a great way to help spearhead a sense of community. For this and other reasons, we’ll be happy to see her go up in flames.”

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Joy Snyder jokes that she and her partner-in-art, Kathryn Gilbert, are the “old ladies” of Emergency Arts. The 63- and 67-year-old, respectively, are one of the building’s original tenants, where they co-run a tiny gallery called Sporadica Designs. “It’s a great vibe,” Snyder says of being immersed in the youthful downtown art scene. “It’s been creatively pushing—there are so many young people around, it rubs off on you.”