Remembering Larry: The Odd Poetry of Larry Harvey

A year has passed since we bid a final farewell to Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey, and we remember the Man in the Hat by sharing articles, audio and videos from friends, family and co-conspirators. Here, Burning Man’s former Minister of Propaganda Will Chase shares his musings about what this ‘second father’ meant to him and to the rest of the world.

The first time I saw Larry Harvey in person, he was wearing a hospital gown. It was Burn Night of 2002, my second year, and we were just in front of First Camp when Larry crossed my path en route to join a small gathering of people surrounding a lifesize, pitch-perfect steel-and-wax effigy of himself. 

Floating Larry by Steven Carthy 2002 (Photo by LadyBee)

Which they proceeded to set on fire.

I watched from afar as this utterly surreal scene played out. Once the pyre had begun to smolder, Larry wandered back to First Camp, alone. As he crossed the Esplanade, a gentle dust plume blew in, a Mutant Vehicle passed behind him, and he disappeared into the dust like an apparition.

Flash forward — I think it was 2009, but they all blur together, honestly — we were at a Burning Man staff retreat, and DaveX hosted a storytelling night around the fire. People popped in and out, and the stories flowed around the circle. I told the story of my first Larry sighting. 

Then others followed, embellishing my story with their version of what happened that night … and then another, until the entire picture was painted. The people in that gaggle around the pyre were the Burning Man Founders, I came to learn.

Larry had had some hospital procedure or other and had bailed out of the hospital to be in Black Rock City. And why not bring the gown? Apparently he also absconded with his IV pole rig and brought that along too — because Larry.

The last time I saw Larry in person, he was wearing a hospital gown. But this time, I was visiting him in the ICU after his stroke. During that week, I spent lots of time thinking about him and what he meant to me — he was like a second father — and to the world. I guess when people are dying, we’re compelled to reflect on the bigger picture, and that person’s place in our world and the world at large. What did they accomplish? What did they bring to the table?

Sitting there by his bedside — I don’t know why I hadn’t realized it before, maybe I was too close to it all — it dawned on me that this man had created a platform that made him the single most prolific instigator of art the world has ever known. Think about it. He created the ultimate platform for unfettered artistic creativity of all kinds, by professional, would-be and wannabe artists alike. 

Think of the number of art installations that have been on playa each of the event’s 30 years. Think of the ones you don’t even know about. Think of the small stuff, the massive stuff, the “WTF is that?” stuff. The installations, the vehicles, the camps, the costumes … and let’s not forget all the weird shit in the back alleys. 

Think of the stuff at the 90+ official Burning Man events around the world, and at countless Burning Man-inspired events as well. How much of that would exist if it wasn’t for what Larry created and cultivated?

Will, Larry and Miss Kelly getting their faces scorched at the Man burn, 2012 (Photo by Stewart Harvey)

So I’ll say this, and I challenge you to disprove it: nobody in history has created a platform that has instigated more art than Larry Harvey.

The great irony is that he’ll likely never be recognized for it, because the mainstream art world (the Smithsonian, Cincinnati and Oakland museums aside) will always resist the fact that an avowed and avid outsider, hellbent on democratizing art and liberating it from its cloistered halls and walls, beat them at their game. 

They won’t acknowledge that what they’ve always demeaned as a “counter-cultural event” was actually a cultural event all along. They can look down their noses all they want, and that’s fine, but we know better.

It’s strangely appropriate that my personal experience of Larry was bookended by such a bizarre coincidence as a pair of hospital gowns, because there was an odd poetry to Larry’s life. And sometimes it’s the oddest poets whose words we need to listen to, because they have something important to say that others can’t hear. And sometimes they’ll do the things that others can’t fathom. Thank you, Larry.

Top photo: Larry Harvey and Will Chase at the 2010 Artumnal Gathering. Photo by Pilar Woodman

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009.

23 Comments on “Remembering Larry: The Odd Poetry of Larry Harvey

  • JueJue says:

    Mr. Harvey was amazing! He found a way to turn Burning Man into a business that was/is hugely profitable. People said it was impossible to market a anarchist event, and control it at every level – but Mr. Harvey knew better. He did it for all of us. I am so thankful for the money I’ve spent to be a long-time participant. He is a saint.

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  • JueJue says:

    Mr. Harvey was amazing! He found a way to turn Burning Man into a business that was/is hugely profitable. People said it was impossible to market an anarchist event, and control it at every level – but Mr. Harvey knew better. He did it for all of us. I am so thankful for the money I’ve spent to be a long-time participant. He is a saint.

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    • Dash says:

      I would not say Larry was a saint, he was just Larry. I never met the man, but I imagine he doesn’t want to be recognized or assumed to be any more of who he was. He was Larry Harvey and he along with others created something much more then themselves.

      That’s all….

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  • Peter D says:

    Thank you for your insights, and for providing a new wonderful way to remember him.

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  • gingerbunny says:

    How can I transfer with moneygram? I have money and I want to give it.

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  • miss brown says:

    yes… And he provided the most amazing canvas to make work on/in. Scale is distorted, collaboration a necessity and it only has to survive a week. Perfectly fertile environment for creativity. Thank you for revealing his gift to all of us, even those who will never “get” it.

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  • Moze says:

    Yes. Thank you Will.

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  • Chris Knoche says:

    Thanks Will.

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  • John Curley says:

    Great one, Will, thank you.

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  • Stuart M says:

    This is a lovely tribute, Will. Thanks.

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  • Rita Volkland says:

    Sigh… So grateful for Larry and the immensely talented team that created a place for misfit and feral souls to find a home. <3 Thank you all. (aka epiphanystarlight)

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    • Tutu says:

      >a place for misfit and feral souls to find a home.
      You mean people with severe personality disorders who were kicked out of their communities from wherever, then heard about BM’s radical inclusion policy. So these demented people, who would historically be shunned and left to die in the wilderness, find a new home about the BM crowd. They can usually keep the mask up for one season and then the cracks appear and the social sabotage begins; the reason they were ostracized to begin with.

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  • Ginger says:

    How many more times do we have to remember this guy? It’s like he just died.

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    • Summer says:

      more importantly when can we stop doing the one-man-created-everything story? it’s really creepy and monotheistic, and being repeated so often, and so very untrue.

      is this the direction the Org is going? shoehorning this into some sort of messianic cult? …I love you dearly Will Chase but this article, which is just meant to be a nice thing I realize, completely ignores the contributions of Cacophony Society, Mary Grauberger, William Binzen, Carrie Galbraith, John Law, Danger Ranger, Vanessa Harley BizBabe Marian etc etc etc and all the rest of us. I see it over and over again in these pages.

      but hey as a friend told me, “People love a great man story”…. whereas “this org has no leader” is so hard to get across (and it seems they’ve given up and are trying instead to create a dead-demigod-type founder, singular). I’m nervous about the way this is all leaning. after all it only took Bohemian Grove 100 years to turn from what-we-were-like into what-it-is-now.

      rest in peace Larry; I hope they give you some soon.

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      • Will Chase says:

        Love ya too, Ms. Burke. I don’t discount the contributions of those formidable folks any more than I discount the contributions of every participant who kept keep this thing going and growing. But having been close to the flame for 13 years, I can tell you that Larry was the reliable keeper of the vision through it all. Without that steady hand on the philosophical tiller, and an eye on that one spot on the horizon, Burning Man simply wouldn’t exist as it does (or at all), despite anybody’s best efforts. It took all of us, but Larry was the visionary leader and the philosophical center, and I believe he deserves the credit.

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      • Yasso says:

        It’s important, as members of this community; as Burners – that we have faith in our leaders and its leadership. I’ve been a Burner for 47 years and have attended the event every year. I believe that Larry Harvey died for our sins. And on the third day of his death was given new life. His body is currently housed at BM HQ and every third day he comes back to life and then dies again. It’s about the magic of this event and so many people are critical of our culture and can’t see the light. We are the chosen people.

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  • Summer says:

    Yes, Larry helped steer the ship the whole time Burning Man had an office. We can agree on that. I don’t discount his contributions (but)!

    Your article says: “So I’ll say this, and I challenge you to disprove it: nobody in history has created a platform that has instigated more art than Larry Harvey.”

    so my issue is with the word “created.” here is me disproving it

    so let’s shake hands and hope that the world stops relying on monotheistic narratives as a means of retaining control, and that it can begin with us. because Larry, rest his soul, “created” Burning Man about as much as George Washington “created” America. <3

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  • BettieJune says:

    Wonderful tribute Will, totally agree. I wrote my graduate thesis about the art of Burning Man, and in my studies got to research several art movements, ideas, concepts and executions. Larry broke new ground in every way. The challenge was he didn’t like to promote this fact; he was always much more comfortable with our burner family and friends than promoting all he contributed to.

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  • Stephen Bove says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing these intimate memories and thoughts.

    I would say the largest platform for art (both inspiration/enabler and patronage) in world history so far has been Christianity, closely followed by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Along with these are several governmental structures (Rome, French crown, British crown, the Greek city states, Persia, Egypt). But certainly, in the last 30 years BurningMan has made its mark, globally, and may one day rank with the formerly mentioned in terms of scale and long-term impact.

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