This year, as the flames consume the Temple and the dust devils begin to swirl, you might catch the glimpse of a tiny man perched on one of Galaxia’s giant petals.
This mini-Man will not only pay humble homage to the person who started it all, but it also symbolizes the personal journey of two men and their place among the many lives celebrated and commemorated at the Temple.
Jerry James, the carpenter who joined forces with Larry Harvey to build the first Man on Baker beach in 1986 — and many more afterwards — has enlisted the help of a Reno artist to honor his old friend.
“A couple of months ago I found out about Roger Floren, who built these miniature Men. In fact, he recently built one for a Larry memorial in Reno, which I saw, so I enlisted him to build one of his mini Men to place in the Temple,” Jerry says.
“At the time there was some discussion among the Temple crew about how to recognize Larry’s passing in terms of the Temple, so it seemed like one gesture to make.”
The gesture is also testament to the power of the Temple to connect people and to create a soft place in the harshness of the desert — and between two men.
“When Larry and I started the project, we were inseparable friends. Over the first few years that the thing happened, the first two were very undemanding and very spontaneous, the last three at the beach were a lot more demanding. I guess there was a lot of pressure and stress on us, and it stressed our relationship,” Jerry says.
“Some things happened that really challenged it, and that was why I withdrew from my primary role in 1990. Then I kept bouncing in and out various roles over the years,” he says.
“So there was some unfinished business there that we both made certain attempts to address over the years. There was a time in the early ‘90s when we had put all that away, and Larry and I were on more positive terms. I don’t know why that changed again, but life is complicated.”
However, things would suddenly become simpler after he saw Galaxia on the Burning Man website.
“When I saw Arthur’s Galaxia, I was floored by the beauty and complexity of it. Having been a builder all my life, I certainly appreciate building anything that’s curved versus something that’s rectilinear,” Jerry says.
He reached out and offered his help to Arthur Mamou-Mami, the French-born architect who designed Galaxia and is leading the project.
Arthur says he wasn’t sure whether to believe Jerry’s email when he first saw it.
“I received an email in January that said: Hi, my name is Jerry James. I built the first effigy on Baker beach. I’d like to be part of the temple. And that was it. Signed, Jerry James. Apparently he sent it twice and when I saw it I was like: Wait, is that real? And it was him,” he says.
From Awe to Thaw
Jerry joined the Galaxia team to kick off the fundraising in San Francisco and to officially launch the fabrication of the Temple’s many triangles at The Generator in Reno. And that’s when his awe turned into thaw after 12 years of not talking to Larry.
“I was having such an amazing experience that I called Larry. We talked about our families and the things were working on for the Burning Man Project this year, and we agreed to get together in person,” says Jerry.
“It was surprisingly moving — at least for me. I don’t think he really had issues with me so much as I had issues with him. There was clearly still love in the picture that late in the game when we had our last conversation.”
And it was to be their last conversation.
Jerry received a call two days later, letting him know that Larry had had a stroke. A hospital visit, a coma and the gifting of a Galaxia medallion would be their last interaction.
But Jerry says he’s grateful he made that call and thankful the Temple provided the opportunity for reconnecting.
“Sometimes in our lives it’s not so apparent how to fix things or quite what’s wrong it doesn’t necessarily submit to logic. But sometimes we just have to reach through that and take a leap of faith that somehow we can come out the other side of that with something meaningful and positive,” he says.
“And I know Larry was very moved by me reaching out to him. He told friends and family, which I learned later.”
Jerry is now helping to build the Temple in Reno and teaching another generation of Burners how to work with wood.
Picnic and Perspective
Arthur says it has been amazing to benefit from Jerry’s building experience and historical perspective.
“During our fundraising events, Jerry would come with us and talk about the very first days of Burning Man and Baker beach, so he shared many interesting insights,” says Arthur.
“It was like a family picnic,” says Jerry of that first fateful gathering on Baker Beach.
“It was Larry and I and our girlfriends and our kids, and we had some picnic food and beverages. And we brought this little scrappy man that we had banged together that very afternoon; it was very crude. Like so many things in life, the antecedence of a thing carried through: it seems like being family and reaching out and extending family is a big part of Burning Man.”
He says people often want to ascribe grander designs to that first gathering, which was just spontaneous and small. But a few years later, as the ‘picnic’ grew and gathered momentum, Larry did start ascribing grand plans to it: he wanted to change the world.
“And whenever he would say that, I would just think, ‘Well, whatever. That seems like a stretch to me that we’re going to change the world,’ says Jerry, who now recognizes that Larry saw something that many others didn’t.
“The fact that this little family picnic has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon is something that I can never get my head completely around. And despite the fact that Larry and I had our share of differences, I recognise how meaningful this event is for so many people,” he adds.
Arthur says: “It’s beautiful to hear how much Jerry acknowledges [Larry] when he really was the carpenter of the Men. I find this really representative of Burning Man: the nature and the visionaries and the people that go out there and build art and everything that was enabled by their [Larry and Jerry] hands.”
A Place Among the Clouds
Galaxia’s lead artist is also conscious about what the Temple enables for the community, and has designed the Temple with that role in mind.
“There is something quite harsh about the desert, and the contrast with a curved, soft, almost cloud-like geometry is very intentional,” Arthurs says. “It’s just a way to show that at the heart of all this harshness, there is something that invokes a much softer side to life.”
Arthur and his team have also talked a lot about the death of Larry, the unique role of the Temple this year and what it means for Galaxia. They have been determined that the Temple doesn’t turn into a “mausoleum” for Larry.
“He wouldn’t have liked that,” says Arthur. “In Stuart’s eulogy, he said that Larry would always reflect the light off himself onto the community. He didn’t want to be a guru. It’s a community and a place where people create their own thing; it’s not about him.”
Instead, the Temple crew has chosen just one petal among 20 to celebrate and commemorate Larry’s life among the many others that will rise with the smoke on Sunday. There, Jerry will attach the 3-4 foot Man.
“It’s just one of the 20 petals — just like Burning Man is a clock, and every minute of the clock has a different story,” says Arthur.
“The idea of diversity and self-expression is so strong at Burning Man; everyone is playing a different part. In that sense, one petal out of 20 would be a beautiful present to Larry and a powerful thing to dedicate to him. And to have Jerry bring something special to it.”
Top photo: Jerry James leading the Temple Galaxia carpentry team at The Generator in Reno, Nevada. (Photo courtesy of Temple Galaxia)