Behind the Scenes with David Best and the Temple Crew


Behind the Scenes with David Best and the Temple Crew

See David Best’s 500,000-piece Temple installation at the Smithsonian—before it goes up in flames at Burning Man

By Danielle Schagrin

See the full article in Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts Issue #76, Fall 2019

Purchase the issue HERE!

“There are very few places in our society where people can address loss,” says California-based artist David Best. In the construction and ceremonial burning of elaborate, wooden temples, Best provides those spaces, albeit temporary ones.

Since 2000, Best has built and burned more than a dozen massive temples, some towering fourteen stories high. He raises them in the Black Rock Desert and in grieving communities around the world, including Parkland, Fla. Visitors to the nondenominational, temporary structures are invited to express their grief and pain in writing on the temple facades. Then, in a cathartic act of healing, they watch the elaborate, wooden temples burn. His latest work, now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., has enveloped the entire Bettie Rubenstein Salon in intricately cut Baltic birch plywood. Layers of floral fretwork glow in the warm light, creating an atmosphere of peace. When the exhibition closes on January 5, 2020, Temple will be disassembled, transported to the Black Rock Desert, and burned, like all of Best’s temples before it.

Best cannot accomplish this feat alone—he collaborates with the “Temple Crew,” a team of skilled and unskilled volunteers, to create the temples. While some members are trained in the building arts, others have no background in woodworking. Learning is part of what Best calls “an organic process.” Another important aspect of the collaboration is equality; Best works with a team that is equally male and female, encouraging women to take their place in a traditionally male-dominated field.

A crew of 16 people began work on the Renwick Gallery temple in a vacant warehouse in Penngrove, Calif. Referring to vector files of Best’s original sketches, they used scroll saws, table saws, chop saws, and CNC routers to create the fretwork panels and altars, which were then shipped to Washington D.C. During the month-long exhibit assembly at the Renwick Gallery, the Temple Crew grew to 25 as local residents heard about the project and offered to help, many hoping to channel their own grief and pain into a creative project. The crew finds a similar response wherever they build a temple. “We don’t recruit them,” said Freddy Hahne, president of the nonprofit organization David Best Temples, “we recognize them.” The photo gallery below shows the Renwick Gallery temple in its beginning stages:

Lead Photo: David Best and the Temple Crew, Temple, 2018. Photo by Ron Blunt.

Gallery photos courtesy of Temple Crew: Freddy Hahne, President of David Best Temples