San Antonio artist’s ‘Phoenix’ sculpture rises from the ashes, then disappears


San Antonio artist Lisa Nigro’s “Phoenix Rising” sculpture, a 12-foot-tall winged creation featuring a flamethrower to make it breathe fire, appeared at last year’s Burning Man counter-culture celebration in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

It’s the last time she laid eyes on the steel bird.

Nigro, 57, accuses the movers she paid to ship the sculpture back to San Antonio of trying to get her to pay additional monies for its return. She’s suing the movers and the companies that were allegedly involved in arranging the move to get the sculpture and some her other belongings back.

“If anything weird’s gonna happen, it always happens to me,” Nigro said with a laugh. “This is pretty weird. Seriously, you don’t want to give me my stuff? You’re trying to milk an artist? I don’t understand where this guy’s coming from.”

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Nigro built “Phoenix Rising” mostly with 55-gallon steel drums. It’s more than 30 feet long and has a wingspan of about 25 feet. It was primarily funded by Burning Man, the annual event that attracts celebrities, wealthy tech execs and social media influencers.

Inspiration for the sculpture “came from our need as humans to shed our skin, destroy what is old, and regenerate through the mythos of the Phoenix Rising from its own ashes to reemerge anew,” according to a website about the sculpture.

The sculpture took about nine months to complete. Nigro estimates its value is anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000.

The sculpture now is believed to be stored in a trailer somewhere in North Texas.

Last summer, when Nigro wanted to ship the sculpture to the Burning Man event, she said a friend referred her to Houston-based Lower 48 Transport Property Services LLC., an interstate property broker.

Lower 48 isn’t authorized to broker interstate shipments, the website of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shows. The company’s operating authority was involuntarily revoked in 2017, apparently for failure to provide proof of insurance.

Nevertheless, Nigro had no issues with the carrier that transported the sculpture to Nevada. She would liked to have had the same carrier for the return trip, but a broken truck axle nixed that plan.

Setting up the sculpture’s return trip oddly involved three additional parties. According to Nigro’s lawsuit, Lower 48 brokered a contract with Patton National Enterprises Inc., an interstate general freight carrier based in Lufkin, to ship the sculpture. The FMCSA’s website shows Patton currently does not have authority to operate. A Patton representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Patton, through Lower 48, dispatched the job to Lubbock-based Brooks Transportation LLC. It assigned the job to Mesquite driver Fernando Perez, the suit says. The complaint describes him as an independent contractor with his own truck.

Albert Brooks, Brooks Transportation’s principal, said Perez used his company’s name without permission for the job.

“I didn’t haven’t anything to do with it,” Brooks said. “He dragged me into it by using my name.”

Records show Alejandrina Ramirez, identified in the suit as Perez’s wife, incorporated Perez Transport LLC in 2015. No Mesquite company by that name shows up in a search of the websites of Texas DMV and FMCSA, however.

Perez arrived at the Burning Man event with Ramirez and four children to transport the sculpture.

After loading the sculpture and Nigro’s other property, including equipment, flame-effect components and camping gear, Perez told her she would need to pay him an additional $1,000 on top of the original $3,000 charge. He also required the payment up-front rather than after delivery, as the contract specified, the suit says.

“He definitely tried to extort more out of her than what the contract was worth,” said San Antonio attorney Jon Powell, who represents Nigro.

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Nigro wrote two checks to Ramirez. Later, after seeing in the contract she was supposed to pay on delivery, Nigro placed a stop payment on the checks “as a means to protect herself from fraud,” the suit says. Payment was stopped on the $3,000 check, but not on the $1,000 check, she said.

Nigro said she was under a lot of pressure to get the sculpture out of Black Rock Desert, which is a national conservation area. She also couldn’t call anyone because of limited cell service, she said.

She told Perez what she had done. He then refused to return the sculpture and other items unless she sent payment using an app. The $2,500 payment was accepted and Nigro received a receipt, the suit says.

Perez made a criminal complaint with Nevada law enforcement, alleging she had passed “hot checks,” the suit says. No charges were ever filed against Nigro, Powell said.

An email and phone call to Perez were not returned.

Lower 48 principal Nicholas Susco was upset with Nigro, saying she wasn’t honest about the amount of belongings she wanted shipped and for writing two “hot checks.”

“She wants to blame other people for her not paying her bills,” Susco said.

Nigro is suing Lower 48, Patton, Brooks Transportation, Perez and Ramirez for fraud, breaches of contract, violations of the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act and defamation. The latter claim relates to the allegation that she wrote “hot checks.” She seeks less than $200,000 in damages.

Before the pandemic, Nigro had plans to show the sculpture at other events, including in Telluride, Colo., and Miami.

“If it had gotten shown in other places, that would have given me more opportunities to build other work,” she said. “That is the most hurtful part for me as an artist.”

Patrick Danner is a San Antonio-based staff writer covering banking and civil courts. To read more from Patrick, become a subscriber. | Twitter: @AlamoPD

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