On Saturdy, Sara Von Roenn was desperate. A three year Burner, she had brought an art installation to Black Rock City for the first time, and had drastically underestimated the difficulties she’d face. Worse, the person who had agreed to come out with her and help set her project up had cancelled at the last minute.
She was alone, in the desert, with a pile of materials that were not coming together.
“I’ve set it up a bunch of times and figured it out, but this was a very different thing,” she said. “I’d just started setting up the structural part on Friday, and the first thing that happened was my support beam got wedged, so I was stuck, I couldn’t do anything. I had to wait for ASS (Art Support Services) to come and get it the next morning, and immediately after they left, I realized that my lag screws wouldn’t go all the way in – they’d go in half way and then give up. I tried to hammer them in with a sledge. When that didn’t work, I started digging. And I was asking myself: ‘Why? What am I doing this? Why is this happening?”
A guy on a bike rode up, and stopped. “Hey,” he asked. “Are you setting up the closet?”
She looked up at him. “Yeah,” she said. It was absurd.
The guy turned. Waved. Shouted “OVER HERE!”
“And a truck pulled up,” von Roenn said, “filled with people! And they get out, and say ‘do you want any help?’ And I was just floored. I said, ‘do you have anything that can put lag screws in?’ and they said ‘Yes! We have three things!’ So they got them out and started setting in the lag screws. And then my mind was racing because I thought ‘okay, I maybe get to keep this going for 10 minutes, I need to get to everything they can help with!’ And then one of them looks at me and says ‘Hey, slow down. Here’s some water. We’re gonna be here for a while.’ I almost started crying. It was such a relief.”
They stayed for three hours, von Roenn said, “and worked their butts off.” When they were finished, so was the project.
The art piece, called “Opening the Closet,” is not just one more installation for von Roenn. It’s her life’s work. The experience she’s given up her life for.
Nine years ago, the Kentucky-based artist had attended an LGBT panel, and was struck by the amount of history – a whole generation’s worth – that wasn’t being passed down to the next generation. “It was really compelling for me to realize how much I didn’t know, and how one generation before me didn’t have children. Before that you would pretend to be straight and have kids, but there was a generation that didn’t have kids, and so that whole section of history of them being on the forefront of the revolution is gone with them. So I started documenting and getting their stories.”
She conceived of Opening the Closet after attending her first Burning Man, in 2015. The piece is a large-scale closet, eight feet tall, 20 feet long, containing clothes. Push behind the clothes to the back wall, and you’ll see messages people from the LGBT community have written about their fears and hopes.
Open one of the 11 drawers in the closet, and you’ll find a diorama containing artifacts from pieces of LGBT history that the world tried to ignore. One drawer contains photos of all the transsexual people murdered in the U.S. this year. Another contains used bottles of the chemical cocktails that people took to try to survive during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
After she conceived it, she couldn’t get anyone to build it. “I was a teacher, and couldn’t find a carpenter who would help me. The carpenters where I live are really busy people!” she said, laughing. “They are so busy! So I quit my job and started apprenticing as a carpenter so I could build it myself. I felt like I was just a conduit on a large scavenger hunt. It was a lot of sacrifice, but it was easy to know to keep going forward.”
She displayed Opening the Closet as part of the Kentucky Pride event, and “I was actually told that it was wrong for Pride and it shouldn’t be there, because Pride is more of a drinking, celebratory, festival. And then another person told me absolutely not, it should be there, Pride is also a vigil.”
The impact she’s seen the piece have has made everything worth it. “It’s been really neat to see my non-LGBT friends encounter it, because they come away with a deeper sense of being a part of that community, and feeling like they can talk about it and step up, and that’s been really inspiring,” she said. “And for LGBT people it’s been very cathartic. It’s really emotional for some people. For me, too, it’s been enlightening because I realized there were a lot of issues I realized I was ignoring in the trans community, not paying attention to their struggle, so it was the same process for me as it was for my straight friends.”
But she had never been as low in the process as she had felt that Saturday, realizing that her life’s work lay before her on the desert floor, and she couldn’t make it stand up. “To be working on something for so long and realize you’re in over your head, it’s a drowning feeling,” she said. “So to have a truck full of people pull up and say ‘hey, we’re finished with our stuff, what have you got?’ was magical. Absolutely magical.”
That’s exactly what had happened. Her impromptu helpers that Saturday afternoon were the Iron Monkeys, a Seattle blacksmith collective that has been bringing work out to the playa for decades. They had finished up their project early, and when they heard there was an artist struggling to set up, decided to go see if a stranger wanted help.
That’s how the magic happens. This isn’t just a great story for its own sake – although it certainly is that – but because it illustrates something vital. One of the most concentrated expressions of Burning Man culture is to see a complete stranger working on something weird and wonderful that you don’t understand, and to ask “How can I help?”
Those moments are what make Burning Man – wherever it is in the world – so extraordinary.
“I’m pretty happy right now,” von Roenn said.