First-Time Artists* Share What It Takes to Make Big (and Small) Art for Black Rock City

*This could be you

Year after year, Daria Generalova and Vladimir Sofronov looked for a night-time perch at Black Rock City that wasn’t freezing cold or booming loud. The couple cherished their playa time as a chance to deepen their relationship (they eventually married in Black Rock City), but too often they found themselves on a quest for a calm, cozy place to connect.

After seven years of seeking, they did what any sensible Burner would do: they decided to create the thing that they wanted themselves. This was the genesis of “Owl’s Nest,” a sweet outpost that offered a refuge for participants needing some downtime. The heated, pillowed structure emitted soothing sounds and offered little baggies of dried fruit for nourishment. It comfortably held two people, although Daria once witnessed seven ‘birds’ snuggling inside.

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Bringing art to Black Rock City was a natural next step in the couple’s relationship to Burning Man — and to each other. But talk to any artist, and their reasons for making the leap from participant to creator are as varied and intimate as the people themselves. The motivation comes from everywhere, from profound events like the death of a loved one or a midlife transformation, to more organic trajectories of art and self, to simply wanting to give back to the Burning Man community.

No matter what their origin story is, all the artists start with the same blank slate: the playa. From there, the lessons and learnings come hard and fast. We interviewed six first-time artists — three of whom received Honoraria grants — about their experiences, how they thought about funding, what they would do differently next time, and what really matters when taking this plunge.

What follows are insights for any Burning Man-curious artists out there. The advice can be sobering, but everyone we spoke to said they would do it again, felt invigorated by the experience, and proudly embraced their new, hard-earned identity. (While the Honoraria grant process is now closed for 2020, there are other ways to bring art to the playa, including through self- and crowd-funding. You are welcome to register your 2020 piece starting in late February.)

Start Learning From Other Artists Right Away

Pam Ward created “The Bard’s Branch” as an ode to two of her favorite things to do as a child: reading books and climbing trees. The piece had over 2,000 second hand books from San Francisco Library deseeding programs and other donations — all of which were arranged into rainbow chakra spirals from base to top. Pam learned what creating big art for the playa was like by joining the crews for “Totem of Confessions” in 2015 and “Black Rock Lighthouse Service” in 2016.

“Having that foundation gives you the confidence to take a leap and go for it,” she says. “Having a community of builders goes a long way.”

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Keep It Simple

Nearly every creator we spoke to underscored how important it is to simplify your vision because costs will creep up, plans will change, and you’ll learn better ways of doing things as you go along.

“The art will take more time, money, people — pretty much more of everything — than you imagine in the beginning. Even tiny art,” says Daria of “Owl’s Nest.”

Hone in on What Really Matters

Plotting resources wisely means being clear on what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.

“It’s easy to think of something super complex; it’s a lot harder to put it in action,” says Sharon DeMattia, the force behind “We the People,” an installation featuring 26 humanoid canvases that invited people to draw on them.

Sharon shares critical advice she received from one of her collaborators, Jeremy Evans at The Generator, a maker space in Reno, Nevada, where she’s based: “Always remember that 20% of your vision is 100% of what they will see. So do 20% really, really well.” This tip helped her focus her efforts, scale back in places, and reduce her budget.

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Know Your Fundraising Strategy

“Decide if you’re self-funded or raising funds and stick with it,” says Daria. “We had a bunch of friends who would start as self-funded, realized that it would take much more money and tried to raise some funds later in the process — which takes time and resources, too. If you don’t plan it from the beginning, it usually ends up wasting more time than raising money.”

Get the Word Out

If you do go the crowd-funding route, Emily Nicolosi of “Koro Loko” recommends doing research to see what’s best for your project (Kickstarter, Hatchfund, GoFundMe, etc.), study which kinds of campaigns do well on your platform of choice, and make a great promotional video, even a DIY one. Then get the word out! Ask friends and family to share on their social channels, send out an email blast, make some phone calls.

“I dressed in a tutu and handed out flowers to raise awareness and money, and it turned into another art project and unexpected gift called ‘The One Face of Love,’” says Sharon of “We the People.”

She ultimately found the most fundraising success via a fiscal sponsor, meaning she could work in partnership with them as a 501c3 organization.

Build a Strong Team

Lindsay Glatz created “Cloud Swing” as a love letter to the people she most adores. “My first-ever memory is being pushed on a swing by my grandmother, who was the person who most infused creativity and wonder into my life,” she explains. “The other bit came from my husband who is obsessed with clouds.”

But Lindsay, like all the artists we spoke to, underscored the necessity of working with a strong, dedicated team to make the vision a reality. For example, she collaborated with Will Nemitoff of Curious Form to “dissect the cuteness of clouds and through his expertise the clouds as were able to be realized.”

Her husband and sister did much of the build work in the hot New Orleans summer, and her camp, Yurtnited Nations, was a lifeblood: “They took care of setting up our shelter, shade structures, everything we needed to be comfortable so that we could focus on the art piece.”

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Don’t Underestimate Scale Out There

Imagine going to Black Rock City for the first time and creating massive art. That was David Oliver, who brought “PORTAL” to the desert this year. Comprised of a metal ring 12 feet in diameter and decorated with 4,608 glass tiles in 24 colors, “PORTAL” was held up by two big basalt columns.

“I thought I was building such a huge piece and out there it seemed so small,” he recalls.

Now he’s thinking about designing a piece for 2020 that’s more “playa-oriented.” “I’m going to be playing with perspective a little more,” he says of the art that has the working title of “Mandala.”

Think Through All the Logistics

Making the art is just the start. If it runs on a generator, it’ll need to be refueled during the Burn. Maybe lights will need to be turned on at dusk and off at dawn. If it won’t be burned, it’ll need to be stored somewhere afterwards. All these things could impact supplies, costs, and the crew’s experience.

“We never really thought that such a tiny object would require shifts two to three times a day, with somebody responsible all the time,” says Daria of “Owl’s Nest.”

David of “PORTAL” says next time he’ll budget for help from specialists and not just rely on friends who might get distracted or burned out.

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Read the Handbook, but Expect the Unexpected

“The Burning Man team does an excellent job of providing resources and helping to prep artists,” says Lindsay of “Cloud Swings.” “However, I think the best mantra for Burning Man itself, and creating work on the playa, is to expect the unexpected.”

As a first-time artist, sometimes you don’t even know the right questions to ask until you’re confronted with them. Plus, dust storms. Wind. Shenanigans.

Remember: You Got This

Emily made the shimmering “Koro Loko” to honor her mother — “the brightest, most loving light in my life” — who had recently passed away. The ambitious project faced daunting engineering challenges, such as how to get a giant heart to balance on a single point and how to get a 3D look with the chosen materials. (They had to tie over 2,000 squares into lines with copper twisted in the back and manually cut each corner off every square. And that’s just the start.)

In addition to resolving to “think a lot more about the build and set up from the drawing board,” Emily says letting go has a role, too.

“It’s important to remember that sometimes your solution is ‘good enough,’ as our co-creator Steve would say. Also: ‘We got this,’ as our Captain Jon lovingly reminds us. We can do anything together.”

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Keep That Imposter Syndrome in Check!

“You have this feeling of doubt all the time,” admits Daria, “like ‘I’m not a real artist, what is it that I’m building? Is it even an art or some strange shit? And does anybody really need it?’”

Daria came to realize that she’s not alone on this one and yearned for a way to hear more stories about the creation of art. “It’d help to understand that you’re not the only ‘not real artists’ and other people aren’t super professional and confident either when doing this.”

But It’s All Worthwhile in the End

If all this sounds like an emotional rollercoaster, it is. But what makes it worth the ride are the participant reactions. All the artists were moved — sometimes to tears — when observing people experiencing their creations.

“I loved hearing people reading through the gramophone from the armchair to the ground,” recalls Pam Ward.

“A father reading ‘The Little Prince’ to his child…Friends reading spiritual teachings to their new friends. A group of 100 wizards and gamers rocking up on a treasure hunt…Many families and children were at the piece, which always warmed my heart. People brought their art to the piece, a beautiful violin player. So many things!”

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David was bemused by how many participants took selfies with “PORTAL” — at least 50% by his count. And if they didn’t do that, they would put their arms in the air “like they really had experienced something.”

Lindsay says: “The ultimate delight was seeing people interact in real life with something that has existed in my head for so many years. It felt like real-life magic…There were so many folks who stepped up to help and encourage us along the way. As they say, ‘the playa provides,’ and that was certainly true of our experience.”

Her own desire to step up and contribute was shared by many of the other artists — and we hope by you too. “I’ve left the playa the last few years with a sense of emptiness and I recognized last year that it was a need to contribute to the Burning Man community on a deeper level. Burning Man is a place where imagination comes to life, ” says Lindsay.

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Top photo: Emily Nicolosi and crew build “Koro Loko.” (Photo courtesy of Emily Nicolosi)

About the author: Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello is Burning Man Project's Digital Community Manager. She went to Burning Man for the first time in 2006 (seven months pregnant, no less) and immediately wanted to leave. (She didn't know dust storms were a thing.) But 24 hours after that initial shock, she fell in love with it, and it's been a part of her life in big and small ways ever since. On playa, you'll usually find her camping in Kidsville, riding Bahamut the dragon, or hugging a speaker because she loves music so much.

6 Comments on “First-Time Artists* Share What It Takes to Make Big (and Small) Art for Black Rock City

  • Artifex Felix says:

    I really like that nest. I hope it comes back; I’d like to sit in it (ideally sometime around dawn or nightfall).

    If you’re human (or maybe even if you’re not), you’re an artist; some people may say otherwise, but they are mistaken. Create something and bring it.

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  • Muchos thank yous, I submitted once and didn’t make the last cut. Been there 3 yrs in row. This helps to get inspired again.

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  • Valerie Micham says:

    … are you reading my mind …

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  • Roseanna says:

    What an inspiring article! I love building on site- the sense of completion and pride that comes out of manifesting a vision is really unlike anything else.

    I’ve started making sketches of a piece I’d like to bring out this next year…

    It’s a scary vulnerable feeling- but I like it!

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  • Volodymyr says:

    I sign below an each word in this article.

    We made Cocoonap – kinetic art installation for BM 2019. This was my (and ours) first big art on Playa. We built most of the parts in Ukraine but our team mates were also in USA and Australia. So we needed to solve a lot of questions with logistics, management, fund raising. Strong planning help us to build a strong team. Strong team support each one inside of it, inspire and give the power to moving forward. We got everything on Playa – broken parts, missing stuff, hard work 14 hours per day, but we all believe in our idea and we made it.

    The first minutes when we were opened for (not) spectators, the moment of self-expression, I swear – it costs all this work.

    And yes, we already started to create a new art for 2020!

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  • Lazy boy says:

    Was just laying in bed considering (again) what exactly to bring to playa. Its 8am in oakland california and im thinking about burning man art 9 months away. Will it stand up to the wind? Do i include fire? Who will be on my team. I open my email to move on with my day and this article is already open on my screen. I dont remember clicking it or seeing it . And it is open on my screen.! Its happening this year.

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