From Playa to Prince George: Life Outside the Frame for an Artist of Color

In early 2019, the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center in Maryland held a three-month show featuring my “Soul Illuminance” collection, one of two exhibitions displayed at the Everywhere Pavilion in Black Rock City 2018.

Quest at Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center (Photo c/o Quest)

When the museum asked me to hold the show, they had been looking for somebody who experienced a different view of living as a person of color: a futurist view, a view of hope and something that spoke to what I’ve come to find out is my Burn — a person living and expressing their truth.

With my art, you can ask what it’s made of — I work in oils, acrylics, watercolors, temperas, glass, metal, marble, body painting and casting — but it’s really about re-making our vision of ourselves as people of color who embrace color and live beyond the boundaries of color.

I think these boundaries are ones we have mentally put on ourselves because we have been restrained by so many forces, both from within and without. When TV doesn’t show you honorable depictions of yourselves and most times people are so broken that they forget that they can do almost anything, we teach ourselves to stop thinking, stop growing, stop asking, stop creating.

But being of color and representing color is an honor, and all of this is learned behavior. When someone like me comes through the door who is vibrant and self-fulfilling, it can have a positive disruptive effect on the community.

Burn Life

Most of the time when I’m at Burns, people think my hairstyle and my clothing is just for the Burn. But living like this is who I’ve always been. For example, some people around DC and the world will approach me to compliment my hair and the feathers in it. Depending on how many times I’ve already had that conversation that day, I may tell them politely but firmly that it is my headdress, that I adorn it to pay homage to and respect my ancestors.

For some people, they see feathers in one’s hair as just a look, but for me it is much more: it’s owning and representing the legacy that I am a part of, and that legacy is Cherokee, Powhatan, Shinnecock and Creole. I also infuse this intentionality and purpose into the clothes I make.

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I grew up surrounded by creative family and friends, and as a professional artist of over 20 years, my life has always been centered around expressing my truth and light, which my community has embraced.

Burning has just made living a little bit more interesting. For the last five years I’ve travelled the world; been invited to different conferences and Regionals to help with art direction, costume, and makeup; and been provided the one community that allowed me to create and play in all of my mediums.

Something was bound to change. The art I started making. But let’s start at the beginning.

The Beginning

After my first Burn, I created a collection explaining to my long-term Capitol Hill clients what Burning Man was for me. My first year was a peek into a vast new world, where I was able to see some of the greatest artists and pieces that were so momentous they demanded respect. Artwork that was sacred geometry and sacred to bear witness to in such an environment.

One evening while creating this collection, “Soul Illuminance” was born, wherein I combined years of creating orgonite, making body molds and sculptures that spoke of the light that resonated out of the individuals I met.

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After that first year, I realized it was important for me to find my soul, my footing, my place in this community. In the default world, my appearance as a woman of color seems to be defined for me. At Burns, I have the opportunity to define it as I see fit and appropriate.

One of the great camps that allowed me room to grow and cultivate so much of my spirit to gift was Foam Camp. While there for three years, I was able to contribute to costume design, art direction and costume makeup, and I had the opportunity to do shows with some of the best psychedelic artists in the world. Humbling. Life changing.

And life just kept changing.

In the Middle

As an artist who had been in DC for two decades selling artwork, my experience at Burning Man made me look at positioning my art in a global community. It made me branch out and prepare for those worldwide opportunities. It also opened my work up to new people around the world and new audiences right here in DC who were able to enjoy the esoteric qualities in my creations.

I began to stop holding back. It allowed me an opportunity to look at decades of experience and really allow myself to play again within my own field. It gave me a sense of my inner five-year-old, which I nurtured alongside the 40-year-old creative with decades of experience. As I grew, it was wonderful to see the people around me grow as well. The communities and camps continue to grow in my heart, as well as the new camps I have begun to create with.

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Once you’ve experienced why creatives love Burning Man, it just seems natural to be able to branch out like the Tree of Ténéré with all the possibilities and all the glow. And with everything that’s happened over the last few years in Black Rock City, 2018 turned out to be epic.

The Everywhere Pavilion recognized and asked me to exhibit my pieces, and it was the welcome home that my heart had wanted since I first came to Black Rock City. When I arrived at my art show and saw many of my friends — somehow without watches and understanding of time there to support me — I knew I had found that place in my community.

And to have mayors, who’d come from across the country to see what a community-centered city looked like, speak with and understand me — these are only opportunities that can be made in the desert.

Prince George & Telling Our Own Stories

Then you know you’re doing it right, when your worlds collide. In November 2018, Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center asked to exhibit my pieces and came to see my work in my studio. Like the people from the Everywhere Pavilion, they said the same thing: “We want everything.”

So for three months they got everything: the Mermaid that graced Foam Camp one year, had her second year at Everywhere, and was then given pride of place in an acrylic case in a museum in Maryland. There was also the piece created out of negatives from the Temple David Best built for the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which a generous vendor from Eastern market gifted to me instead of throwing them away. Those pieces went from DC to playa and then the museum.

Bringing my art to the African-American community in Prince George’s County was bringing joy back home, from the exhibition opening to a fashion show. My Burning Man experiences mean that now I only want to make time for things that bring love and joy.

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In fact, one of the people who attended our panel, “The Art of Business, and the Business of Art”, came to the museum on a whim. She happened to bring a book of her art that no one else had ever seen. After meeting the artist, I asked the Museum Director to look at her work. She would go on to have her own show in the gallery less than a month after my own had ended.

It was emotional to shine the light I was in and say that y’all need to take a look, to catch someone who could’ve slipped unnoticed through the cracks. It’s amazing when you can improve another artist’s quality of life, work and path.

Because there is no guide book for this, especially for people of color. So often the stories have not been told by us, but about us. In sharing my own, very unique art, I can only hope to share a story in color that is not defined by color, just by me.

Top photo courtesy of Quest Skinner

About the author: Quest Skinner

Quest Skinner

Quest Skinner is an artist and free thinker. A member of the DC Burner community, Quest has served as the Art Director for theme camps at Regional Burns as well as Black Rock City, and has served in various roles from assistant to lead on various Effigies & Temples for the Mid-Atlantic Community. Before Burning, Quest worked for decades as a mixed-media artist, teacher, community activist residing in Washington, DC. Since Burning, the world has become her studio and gallery, the global community her students and audience. She tweets, occasionally, at @QuestSkinner.

16 Comments on “From Playa to Prince George: Life Outside the Frame for an Artist of Color

  • Jamal says:

    When did BMorg start letting black people in? If you look at almost every group of Burners off and on the playa there are no black people. So stop pretending that you’re not racists.

    Oh, but I have black friends! Really? Did you invite them to the party?

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    • Mark Brailsford says:

      There were black folks at my first burn 11 years ago, and more every year since.

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      • Jamal says:

        So the exception proves the rule. I’m still afraid of black people so I don’t invite them in my BM camp. But I love black people because I’m white and I have to say that.

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    • Wovoka says:

      This is a long, slow process and I have no idea what the “fix” is, but I do know that finger-pointing only causes folks to get their back up. I’m a white guy who spent 13 months in Selma ’64-’65 and met MLK on Rte. 80 to Montgomery before moving to Atlanta, where I often got the cold shoulder from African-Americans (can’t blame the restraint, given their heritage). Last year at BRC, I too noticed dark skinned attendees were in – to coin an expression – short supply. I sense that 1) word has not yet gotten out to the black community; and 2) there will always be lingering discomfort about setting foot in such a wild, chaotic party atmosphere among (let’s face it) a crowd of white folks. The only thing I can suggest is we go out of our way and INVITE ’em!

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      • Jamal says:

        Some come, of course. Would BM be better with 13% black people? What about asians and hispanics who are also underrepresented? It’s okay if you/we say, BM is a white person’s sport. But it feels weird when we pretend that we are radically inclusive but then you look around it’s 95+% white people.

        Do they hate people of color… No. Are they really friends with them as they report? No. And that’s why they (POC) don’t (generally) get invited. And that’s okay too.

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      • Whitney says:

        BM Org and burners can–and must–do a lot more to become truly equitable and inclusive. That starts with learning about institutional racism and accepting that every white person raised in Western culture has learning to do and room for improvement. We who have the unasked-for privilege of being born with pale skin can choose to check our assumptions. We can choose to stop equating being called “racist” with thinking that that means we are “bad person”, because while we are defending our egos, we are not learning. We didn’t choose this culture–we were born into it–but we can choose to become aware of and do better than how we were raised.

        Centering black, indigenous, Latino, and other POC, and their art and voices, is one place to start. Learning about institutional barriers that disproportionately affect minorities, and taking steps to level the playing field and make BM equally accessible to those who live under those barriers, is another. It’s *so much more* than just inviting people. It’s about making BM an experience that POC *want* to be a part of, where they feel safe, recognized, and valued; where they are thoroughly represented both in the community and in leadership; and where their voices and decisions play a leading role in guiding our community development.

        Jamal, you asked if BM would be better with 13% black people, and more hispanics and asians…and as a lily-white Gen X-er I, say HELL YES! I salute and appreciate every single beautiful human out there with darker skin than me, because I know just showing up at all and facing that sea of mostly entitled, mostly oblivious whiteness, is an act of courage beyond anything I’ll ever likely have to face. THANK YOU. The playa is better for your presence.

        I only hope BM Org and all burners will undertake/continue the hard and courageous work of making it more inclusive and more of a truly multi-cultural experience, so that someday the skin colors of the burning man community as a whole and on playa will be as radiantly diverse as our artwork.

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  • Geomom says:

    It is exciting when you are able to carry that energy over into the default world. Grats on the exhibition!

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  • Rafiki says:

    We love you Quest, you are a beacon of light and inspiration for our community and the world ❤️

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  • Jerome says:

    Love you Quest, thanks for this wonderful piece!

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  • Nexus (he/him/his) says:

    Thank you for sharing this Quest

    It’s been a pleasure and a privilege Burning with you over the past several years, and looking forward to what the future will bring.

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  • Salamala says:

    Thank you Quest for your gift and sharing. Please keep on inspiring us with all your colors and media’s. I can’t wait to see what would happen if you begin building big sculptures … xo

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  • Caution Girl says:

    Thanks for bringing us along on your journey-story, Quest! Beautiful work, and beautiful you.

    To whoever made that first comment about the Borg not letting Black people in: My first few years I worked on theme camps that happened to have Black friends as major participants or leaders, about 20 years ago. Someone must’ve forgotten to send us the memo.

    Yes, BRC skews white. Everyone knows it, the organization (like so many others) is trying to work on their obvious equity issues, they’ve been transparent about it, Larry apologized for repeating what his wife had told him about camping, etc etc. So there’s not much point being snarky about it.

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  • Kenny Reff says:

    Nice essay Quest. It’s been so wonderful to see your growth since your first burn!

    And to Jamal… in fact, people of color DO get invited and Quest is a perfect example. Our camp, It’s All Made Up, as part of Project Radical Inclusion, invited Quest to her first burn and helped pay for most of her expenses to make it possible. And in turn, she blossomed and has become an ambassador of sorts.

    It’s a slow process, but actually lots of burners do step up to help bring diversity to playa. Just because you’re not aware of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For instance, this short doc was made by DC burners years ago.

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  • vincent wade says:

    There are no restrictions about who can come. People do what they want to do.
    Just because blacks don’t show up doesn’t mean they were excluded, because everyone is very much welcome. Trying to fixate “blame” to anyone based on race, when it’s just a matter of the people who didn’t come not wanting to, is racism in itself. BM cannot force anyone to come, just to appease the malcontents bitching about who didn’t want to come. Please take your racist hypocrisy somewhere else.

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  • pulocker says:

    Thank you for sharing this Quest

    It’s been a pleasure and a privilege Burning with you over the past several years, and looking forward to what the future will bring.

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  • I met Quest at the Texas Bullock Museum. Her uniqueness was stunning. I did not know if the feathers were for the Space Cowboy Ball or not I just started saying hello. Soon enough we were speaking German and I was just fascinated. So much energy, so much vitality. Exactly what I was needing, three years as entrepreneur in Germany can bring you so down. We just won the New Space Business Plan Competition Audience Prize and I was feeling like I won one million dollars. When I saw her I knew I was doing the right thing, that I was pursuing the right goal. Few minutes of conversation were enough to invigorate my soul and my spirit to help me forget the hardship of battling against all the obstacles in my way. As a born Venezuelan and living in Germany since more than 20 years I suddenly remember my roots, my origins, I thought about my family, about my ancestors, about my quest. It felt good, it felt right. I was in the right place at the right time.

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