Burning Man founder Larry Harvey died on April 28, 2018 at 8:24am PST after suffering a stroke in his San Francisco home on April 4. He is survived by his son Tristan, his brother Stewart, his nephew Bryan, and a global community of devoted Burning Man participants inspired by his vision to build a more creative, cooperative, and generous world. He was seventy years old.
A native of Oregon, Larry grew up on a small farm outside Portland, the adopted son of Nebraskans who moved west in the wake of the Great Depression. His brother Stewart, also adopted, wrote that their parents, Katherine and Arthur “Shorty” Harvey were “loving, though tightly corseted,” while Larry, on the other hand, was more of a reader and a dreamer. Though Larry decided at an early age to, as he put it, “confound my father by becoming an intellectual,” he was deeply influenced by what he called his parents’ “frontier values” of hard work and self-reliance. Partly as a reminder of this, for much of his public life he sported a pearl-gray Stetson hat, an homage to his father that became iconic in its own right.
After brief encounters with the US Army and Portland State University, Larry moved to San Francisco in 1969, and settled in the still-flowering Haight-Ashbury district. He lived there for many years with Jan Lohr, a kindred spirit he’d met at Portland State who had accompanied him on the move south. Then in 1981, shortly after splitting up with Jan, he met Patricia Johnson and fathered a son, Tristan. Though his marriage to Patricia was short-lived, Larry was determined to be a positive presence in Tristan’s life, and proved to be a committed and loving father. He also forged deep and lasting relationships with his stepchildren from that relationship, Dante and Zan.
Though he never received a college degree, Larry followed through on his threat to become an intellectual. A voracious reader and unstoppable autodidact, he was particularly drawn to the study of history, philosophy, and psychology, and had a lifelong passion for good books and good conversation. Among his intellectual heroes were William James, Sigmund Freud, and the American scholar Lewis Hyde, whose book “The Gift” was influential in the early development of Burning Man philosophy. While Larry made his living in the trades, primarily as a carpenter and landscape artist, he fell in with a group of friends who shared his intellectual curiosity and love of discourse, whom he later dubbed the “Latté Carpenters.” One of them, Jerry James, was his partner in the first Burning Man event, on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986.
Much has been written about this seminal Burn, and what it may or may not have represented. Was it to burn away the pain of a failed relationship? An act of pure spontaneous creation undertaken on a whim? Larry’s final position on the question was that it did not matter. He preferred that we understand it as a blank canvas onto which to project our own thoughts and feelings, a ritual outside of context and unfettered by explanation. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the best way to spoil that direct experience was to tell you in advance what it was supposed to mean, or what you were supposed to feel.
As a denizen of San Francisco in the 1980s, Larry found himself drawn to the sorts of Bohemian scenes that are often the breeding grounds for serendipitous collaborations. And when he started hosting his own happenings on Baker Beach, he lit a flame that in turn drew these free spirits to him. He joined forces with the San Francisco Cacophony Society, and its members became some of the first Burners. When San Francisco authorities shut down the Baker Beach Burn in 1990, it was these Cacophonist colleagues who helped orchestrate the event’s relocation to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Over the next three decades, Harvey fought tirelessly to keep the event going, through dark days of organizational strife, government opposition, and financial uncertainty, as well as through boom times of community growth and unbridled creativity. Through it all he pursued his vision with a single-minded determination. In the words of his contemporary Stewart Brand, he created something that has “surpassed in every way” all other offspring of the San Francisco counterculture. Burning Man is now a global, year-round community, with 85 official regional events on six continents, and hundreds of thousands of passionate participants.
Larry loved language, and delighted in using words that could send even a well-educated reader to the dictionary. One such term was “hagiography,” which he employed as a caution to anyone who might be tempted to cloak his story in a mantle of saintliness. He was allergic to the word “genius,” and fought resolutely against efforts to paint Burning Man as a cult, and him as its guru, preferring instead to deflect ownership of the movement back onto the community, and away from himself. This he did again and again over the course of his career, most emphatically in 2013, with Burning Man’s transition from private ownership to a nonprofit, public benefit corporation. Larry wanted Burning Man to last longer than his lifetime; to become, as he liked to imagine, “a hundred year movement.”
With the transition to nonprofit status, Larry stepped back from day-to-day operations. He remained active on the Board, and maintained a strategic role in government relations, philanthropic engagement, and the event’s creative direction, both as a member of the honorarium grant committee and as lead author of Black Rock City’s annual art theme. He took the title of Chief Philosophical Officer, and continued to write and speak on Burning Man’s behalf. A prolific essayist, his writings are an important part of his legacy, most notably his influential “10 Principles of Burning Man,” written in 2004 to document the emergent ethos behind the event, and to help shape the direction of the Regional Network.
Shortly before his death, Larry attended the gala opening of the Smithsonian’s Burning Man exhibit, “No Spectators,” at the Renwick Gallery in Washington. This recognition of Burning Man as a major American art movement, after decades of outsider status, gave him a great sense of satisfaction. But at the same time, he liked to remind us that art and creativity are just the more visible aspects of Burning Man’s larger role, as a cultural movement. In a world where culture, as he liked to say, is “disappearing faster than the tropical rain forests,” he saw Burning Man as one of the only viable alternatives to the consumerist mainstream. For Larry, building a framework where people could create and experience authentic culture, rather than simply buying it off the shelf, was the wellspring of Burning Man’s success, and the key to its future.
A humanist at heart, Larry did not believe in any sort of existence after death. Now that he’s gone, let’s take the liberty of contradicting him, and keep his memory alive in our hearts, our thoughts, and our actions. As he would have wished it, let us always Burn the Man.
In lieu of flowers, you are invited to share memories of Larry at larry.burningman.org. We’ve also received inquiries about financial gifts. At the request of friends of Burning Man, Burning Man Project has established the Larry Harvey Art and Philosophy Fund to support art projects, philosophical endeavors, and other work that reflects Larry’s passion for the playful and the profound. Please see donate.burningman.org/art-and-philosophy-fund/ for more information.
(Top photo by Scott London)