As we approach the one-year anniversary of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey’s passing, we remember the Man in the Hat by sharing articles, audio and videos from friends, family and co-conspirators. Here, Kate Raudenbush, long-time Burning Man artist and friend of Larry, shares the heartfelt speech she gave at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre event last year, along with the letter she wrote to Larry as he lay in his hospital bed.
1986: Smithsonian Museum — Impressionism:
It was 1986. I was a young girl standing in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, gazing in rapturous wonderment at a painting of sacred space filled with light. It was Claude Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral, Sunlight 1894.”
Impressionists pushed radical ideas about creativity: they violated the rules of painting in a confined studio, to instead paint outside. They cultivated a style that embraced spontaneous, loose brushstrokes, and emotional immediacy. They were inclusive of scenes of everyday life, and the impression of light. No-one had done this before.
This rebellious group broke off on their own, not caring about the scathing criticism of the rigid establishment art scene.
I thought this idea of creative rebels was awesome. But I was 100 years too late to be any part of that art movement. And I wondered to myself: How do art movements even happen in the first place?
1986: Baker Beach — Artistic Muse:
Little did I know that, 3000 miles away, Larry Harvey was about to set fire to one on Baker Beach.
It was an improbable truth.
If some vaguely informed Oracle took me aside back then, and told me, the young aspiring artist, “Kate Raudenbush: at this very moment, your life’s Greatest Artistic Muse is in San Francisco… He’s a chain smoking, bohemian-intellectual, about to start a lifelong obsession of building stick figure statues in the sand,” .…then, I might have become an accountant.
But I loved art and I would not be deterred. I knew that creativity was one of humanity’s greatest gifts. It informs, challenges and celebrates the very identity of our species. And when done really well, it can change the way we see the world.
Because it affects us, and connects us: viscerally, intellectually and spiritually. And that can change consciousness. And when you change consciousness, you can change the world.
Enter Burning Man:
In one of my very first conversations with Larry, I said to him what almost everyone says: Thank You.
And true to form, he said, “Well, don’t thank me, you all are the ones who bring in this creativity to the desert, we just provide the container. The structure and support. Without you, all this means nothing.”
He never made Burning Man about him.
It turns out that all great cultural revolutions are instigated by outsiders, by thinkers questioning the established reality, refusing to conform. Celebrating instead the experimental, courting risk, and comfortable to push themselves with abandon, until, inevitably, they are teetering on the growth edge of a new creative frontier.
Larry’s Life embodied this. He seemed to me like a bohemian and a Renaissance Man rolled into one.
Larry loved to comment endlessly on the the social anthropological aspects of culture, past and present. He weaved his themes together to question a new facet of our reality, a new kind of connectivity every year. He loved the art. And he would point out that it was Burning Man that funded “Big Art” when no one else was. He was proud of that. Over time, “Burning Man Art” became the model for showing “Big Art” at other festivals around the country. Now Burning Man supports art on a global scale, like no-one else.
Big Art Pioneers:
Larry knew damn well the hard work it took to fill that colossal landscape with equally colossal Art. “Big Art” takes courage and tenacity. Many of these people (my friends!) are the talented men and women who were the Big Art Pioneers at the beginning of Burning Man, at the turn of our century. I was in awe of their art before I began making my own in 2004, and I’m in awe of them still. Every time Larry visited me at my artwork, he talked about them.
It was as if Larry offered us the ultimate creative dare.
It was really hard. And we supported each other. We definitely weren’t doing this as a “career move” for “exposure” — there wasn’t that much media exposure at all. We were doing it purely for the love of our creative culture.
And let me tell you: He knew the logistics of making art on a Salvador Dali landscape within a “Mad Max” sand storm was insane; it was financial suicide, and at times, a personal relationship shredding machine. And despite all our creative invention, we were routinely derided by the established art world like many art movements before. But to us, and to him, this was the ultimate Tabula Rasa, the ultimate creative challenge, the ultimate way to contribute to something larger than ourselves.
We were obsessed. We wanted to blow people’s minds. We wanted to resonate with this richness of invention, growing the middle of nowhere.
Larry Harvey’s Themes and Intention:
What were we artists Inspired by? The container of possibility shaped by Burning Man and Larry Harvey’s Themes. That was the catalyst. That was the dare.
His themes created a collective consciousness throughout the community and the event. Larry set the intention.
If it wasn’t for his ethos of 10 Principles, his philosophical ideas and the risk that Burning Man embraced by supporting no-name artists, I don’t think I would have ever made the artwork that came through me. Larry inspired me to make art through allegory, art that questioned and elevated our human experience, as he did. It became, for me, like a spiritual practice. Every artwork that I made, I made in dialogue with his ideas. I’m going to miss that conversation.
HELIOS Sculpture at Burning Man:
For “Da Vinci’s Workshop” in 2016, I made a sculpture called “Helios.”And I finally decided that I was going to burn… my… art. “Helios” was inspired by Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” drawing as a gesture of self-empowerment.
On the night we were to open the sculpture, Larry appeared spontaneously, as he always did, and hatless. My crew gave him the full hassle for breaking the boundary line because they didn’t recognize him without the hat. He was so amused. We stood at the center of the artwork and he told me that this was probably the best work I had ever made. To which I lamented, with a rueful laugh, “Yeah, and then I’m going to burn it!” It kind of broke my heart, to tell the truth, and he could tell.
“But you know, “ he said to me with excitement and sparkling eyes, “in the end this is a conduit for ritual, for shared experience, that is its purpose. It doesn’t have to stay in the physical world forever. Its power is in the now, in the connection of people. The sculpture’s purpose is to empower others.” The fact that he understood it, gave me peace.
Looking back, I knew he understood this artwork, because that is exactly the reason why he worked to so hard too hold Burning Man so sacred all these years: It is a conduit and a catalyst for creative and social change.
It empowers people, it changes the way we see things. And in its best moments, its communal expression gives you hope for humanity. We need that, now. Because, as Larry knew, when you change consciousness, you can change the world.
Burning Man exhibit at the Renwick:
It was 2018. I was back at at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, I was no longer a young girl, but a grown-ass-woman whose work was part of the exhibit.
I was gazing in rapturous wonderment, this time, inside a sacred space filled with light. I was in David Best’s Temple room at the Gala opening of the “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibition. The mood was nothing short of ecstatic. It was a Temple of Joy for the entire Burning Man culture.
For a brief a moment, I was standing by myself, transfixed by the incredible sculptural cascade at the center of the space, when I saw Larry Harvey across the room standing alone, gazing in rapturous wonderment at the exact same thing.
I crossed over to him sharing in the amazement of the exultation of our shared culture. I have never seen him so happy, so proud. “Larry!” I squealed, “Look what we all made together! We did it!” And he just looked at me, both of us grinning ear to ear and he grabbed me by both shoulders and said, “Oh! YOU!” and he gave me a big kiss on the cheek, followed by that awesome smile.
And he was off, surrounded by love and joy. That was my last moment with that amazing man.
Muse of Fire:
During the weeks of our long goodbye, our hero’s farewell, we were invited to write a personal letter to Larry to be read to him at his bedside. Although i never got to read it to him personally, many of my dear friends were able to read it to him many times. I hope he heard it.
And, so, in closing, I thought I would share it with you tonight:
Dear Larry, “O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” I’m thinking of you Larry Harvey, and holding you in my heart and mind. You are the greatest artist’s muse I could have ever dreamed of…. A conductor of a mad symphony of misfit artists, daring us all to sing our own songs, in resonance with your wild ideas. Each note played, a cacophony of fiery brilliance, absurdity, profound and profane insight, humbling sacredness and personal reinvention. A crescendo of community bonded through your grand experiment, sealed by fire, shared struggle and breathtaking creative invention. Through the dust, we discovered families we never knew we needed, or could have hoped for, and we discovered ourselves.
Thank you for instigating this ritual, this culture, this creative path. I will never be the same, but better, because of you. Thank you for always visiting me at my sculptures at the exact perfect time, with encouragement and insights and kindness. Thank you for your outrageous wit and for showing me the view through your window on humanity. You, more than anyone, shaped my art as as an allegory, a song, like a call and response spiritual.
Thank you for seeing me, and for taking my art seriously. Thank you for our long, heart-centered talk about creativity at the National Arts Club in New York. Thank you for our hilarious afternoon hanging out at your place, walking though your park, our laughter over many dinners, with you holding forth in an unending stream of wit and olympic-level non-sequiturs…. You are both real, and surreal.
It was so wonderful to see you so happy, and appreciated, and loved at the No Spectators opening at the Renwick. You, the iconoclastic catalyst spinning at the center of the culture you helped instigate. Look what we made together! What a crescendo of life for all of us.
Chief Philosophic Officer, Evolutionary Revolutionary, Muse of Fire, Mentor, Friend… You are so loved.
I am grateful, to the core of my being, for you.
Through forever and back, Kate.
Top photo by Bailey Photography