The city of Black Rock is created on the “playa” of the Black Rock Desert for the annual weeklong Burning Man Festival. We flew from Reno to the playa on a terrifyingly small and old charter plane that seemed barely able to make the 50-minute flight.The door handle fell off when we were loading and we couldn’t take off until we found it and put it back on. Then the passenger door flew open in midair. I sat in the front worrying over the antique looking dials and gauges and the scratched up paneling effect on the steering column that looked like décor from an old station wagon. The logo said “Skywagon.” Nothing new or cool has been called “wagon” since the seventies. Excitement replaced fear when I saw half circle of the city below us.
One of the cooler aspects of the festival is the way people share their talents. It is easy to spend an evening going to see live jazz, live folk or any other kind of music you would like to find. Bruce and I stopped in for a while at a large geodesic dome where a very lively and fun dance instructor on a microphone was teaching dance classes to a crowd of couples staged around the circumference of the dance floor. The abundant creativity everywhere is really amazing. Our camp was proud to showcase an art car made by Henry Chang that inspired gearheads to stop and whip out cameras all day long.
Just like in a real city, there is an element of seediness to be found if you seek it out or put yourself in its path in the wee hours, but Burning Man is large enough and diverse enough to be what you make of it.
The daytime vibe is funky and upbeat. At 8:45 and C (The layout is that of a clock) I rested in the “Center of Attention Chair” that was decorated like a throne. As soon as I sat down some people at the camp came out to spritz me if I was overheated, ask if I needed anything, announce, “She’s here!!!”, get me a drink and to tell me how fabulous I looked. In one of the most upscale camps on the outskirts of the festival I got to hang for a few minutes with the actor Will Smith who is as charming and handsome in real life as he is on film. Unfortunately there was also tragedy this year. Alicia Louise Cipicchio, 29, fell while attempting to jump onto an art car (in this case a double-decker bus called Shagadelica which had been covered in white fur) and got run over, even though the universal speed limit there is 5 mph. Out of the almost 66,000 people at the festival, it turns out she was someone I knew. She had worked for a guy who used to sell my art, and had told me last year what a fan of my work she was. R.I.P Alicia.
One of my Burning Man contributions was to bring a bunch of homemade necklaces to give away to members of my camp and to others I met. Burning Man is necklace intensive. It made me feel great to see my decorations on the people around me. There was a “gifting mailbox” down the street and I put some in there as well, taking sunscreen in exchange. I also sent a bunch of art supplies, plywood and 2 x 4’s to the camp ahead of time. With the wood I built a little painting booth that faced avenue A. It was an invitation for people to come try their hand at painting. Passers by could contribute to a group canvas or paint their own. Some people stayed for hours, like Roni Yaari, Matt Hanover, and Brittany Mason. Others would just stop in to watch or to try their hand at being expressive in an unfamiliar way.
I painted a playa sky with a rough semblance of Black Rock City underneath. I put a glitter grid over it then left it out. On the night of the big burn someone painted the symbol of the burning man on the top in acrylic paint, which finished the piece off perfectly. My new friends Shannon Tobin and Steve Funk took that piece home as a remembrance.
The best part of Burning Man is not the partying or the drug culture. Burning Man changes your perspective. Burning Man is hard. The climate is harsh, it is exhausting, and being there is challenging. There is a lot to take in and a lot of people to deal with. It can be overwhelming. To really participate you have to get out of your skin, lose your judgmentalism, change your mindset, and be totally okay with yourself and with a swath of humanity. It took me several days to really get my head in the right spot and when I did I felt different. At first I had to get used to all of the stimulation, all of the hugging and all of the acceptance and openness. Now I am trying to get used to “normal,” which doesn’t include those things. You don’t know how heavy the usual baggage you carry in your life is until you put it down, such as worrying about how you look, and picking that weight up again feels unpleasant. On the way home I was wondering why I work so hard and why everything in life is not good enough just as it is in each moment. Now those feelings are fading somewhat, and I will see how much of the positive Burning Man ethos stays with me over time.