What I Learned from Bringing My First Art Piece to Black Rock City

What the heck just happened? It’s been months since we left the desert and I’m still working through this in my head. So bear with me. In fact, I’ll probably need a year to process what happened to me, how I feel about it, and then to find better words for articulating it.

What I do know is… this past year (well, the past five years) has been a whirlwind of unexpected triumphs, challenges, emotions, magic, growth, lessons and beautiful connections — all based around Black Burner Project and Burning Man. 

If you don’t already know, I started documenting the presence of People of Color at Burning Man in 2018, through photography and personal interviews — titled Black Burner Project — after seeing the lack of visual representation presented in the media and the false understandings of the experiences people were having out there. 

“Black! Asé” on playa, 2022 (Photo by Manon | @burningmanworld)

Let me take you back with me, for a moment… See, I’ve always wanted to step into the version of myself that I knew in my soul I was destined to be. But circumstances, which I took as failures because of what I was lacking, led to fear and frustration over how long it was taking. Feeling “stuck” in life seemed to take me on a never-ending cycle to nowhere. Why couldn’t I just trust and stand in my power? I often felt I was watching the people around me evolve and move forward while I couldn’t get a grip. I can see now that I simply lacked awareness and the ability to stay present during this evolution of self journey, which kept me from believing it was ever going to happen — even as it was happening. I was not enjoying the ride.

Saying yes to a gifted Burning Man ticket and stepping onto the playa for the first time is what I credit for creating a shift in my life. What I’m realizing now is how those two important moments didn’t cause the shift — rather, they shook me up to notice the purposeful journey I was already on — and meant to be — on more clearly. I needed to go to Burning Man for Black Burner Project to exist and, subsequently, for “Black! Asé” to exist. Having the boldness to say yes, even amidst my fear, changed me. Never had I felt so strongly about an idea as when I felt the need and desire to start documenting the presence of Burners of Color. I had no choice but to pursue it. And then, it became bigger than me.

In 2021 I applied for a Black Rock City Honoraria grant and later led an outstanding team of doers, creators, leaders, and committed people to help bring a historic large-scale installation to Black Rock City in 2022. This put me in the vanguard of black female photography artists to receive the Honoraria. I’ve yet to really feel or understand the magnitude of this entire journey.

Pre-fabrication in Richmond and Petaluma, California, 2022 — with gratitude to Marco Cochrane & Ulan McKnight (Photo courtesy of Erin Douglas)

I am learning now that I’ve always been the person I was looking for. Everything leading up to this huge idea, before I even knew about Burning Man, meant I was already powerful enough to dream it and accomplish it. Continuously questioning who and where I was in life was what took the feeling of my own power away for so long. 

How My Journey to Bring Art to Black Rock City Began 

I remember when I first decided I wanted to bring an art piece to Black Rock City. It was a “someday I want to be the artist with a piece out there” thought that came to me. I sat with it. This idea would visit me every once in a while, but it never went further than a little desire deep down that I wasn’t ready to admit out loud or go after yet. It seemed too big. I’d never done anything like it. I was undermined by a little voice that asked, “Who do you think you are, anyway?”

(Photo by Erin Douglas)
(Photo by Erin Douglas)

In the meantime, I went on with my life. I was working my ass off to fill the void I knew Black Burner Project needed to fill, without any idea of what this work would eventually lead to. 

It was the holiday season of 2020. We still didn’t know if Black Rock City 2021 would happen or not. I was hopeful that the normalcy I was used to was closer than it actually was. I was sitting in my basement watching a Christmas musical when I got a call from Yomi of We Are From Dust, a nonprofit that helps Burning Man artists install their work in public spaces after the Burn. 

(Photo by Erin Douglas)

Yomi presented me with an idea: We Are From Dust wanted to support an Artist of Color in bringing their first piece to Black Rock City. It sounded like he wanted me to be on the board. When I hung up the phone I remember saying in a soft whisper, “I want to be the artist.” That was the first time I had said this aloud, the beginning of this little dream brewing inside me evolving into something huge and real.

I had no damn clue what I was doing or what I had to do to bring this dream into reality. I didn’t know where to start, or what I needed to do. But the meetings started. The ideas and concept were born. I reached out to people I knew I wanted on my team, including mentors, and just took one step at a time. I can truly say I figured out every bit of this in the moment.

I learned fairly quickly that I was embarking on a multifaceted journey. Bringing an art piece for the first time as someone who had never entered the space of public structures or installations is no small feat. I know now that I did not ask the right questions and, without a doubt, I didn’t ask enough questions. What was I really getting myself into? What kind of support would I get or need? Where does one who has never done anything like this even start? What roles do I need to fill on my crew? What skills do I need? How much is this going to really cost me?

A few screenshots of our team’s virtual calls throughout the year, 2022
“Black! Asé” Build Leads: Kyle Mimms & Brian Green
By Day 6 of Build Week the elements were affecting my soul
Fran Xavier, “Black! Asé” architect & co-designer

This has been my biggest, most challenging learning experience, but also an extremely rewarding one that catapulted my growth exponentially. The pressure I put on myself, and the attention this project generated, compelled me to figure it all out. What kept me going and believing it was possible — even when everything seemed to be falling apart — was truly believing my project needed to be out there and then visualizing it, out in the dust, with people experiencing it. I dreamt of forming a diverse team with People of Color in lead rolls. What I wasn’t expecting was to witness my team form bonds, become family, and be inspired to go after their own creative endeavors. 

What I Learned That Might Help You, Too! 

You will need an amazing team. You’ll need committed people who believe in your vision and mission more than you even expect them to. Once you build that team of remarkable humans, take care of them. 

Spreadsheets and video calls will become your BFFs. I had more conversations about fundraising, metal, scaffolding, power, wood, and earth anchors than I ever expected. 

You’ll be learning as you do it, and you will likely get a lot of things wrong. It was exciting to learn so many new skills. That’s why it’s so important to give yourself grace. You’re not supposed to be all-knowing and great at everything.

Understand your purpose and stand firm in why you are doing your project. Your reason and purpose is yours. It’s normal and healthy for the question, “Is this worth it?” to come up throughout the process. Even now, I still often get asked the question, “Was it worth it?”

Building art in Black Rock City is hard and will take over your life. Know up front that you will have many breakdowns. Experienced advisors and mentors are essential. Many unexpected situations you weren’t prepared for will challenge you. The dust storms may impact your build. Some days I couldn’t find our build site due to the thickness of the dust. Also, the heat! (Need I say more?!)

Expect your budget to be at least 20-percent higher than what you projected. Unexpected expenses will happen often and add up (I now own a 40-ft hi-cube container, y’all. I mean, what?). Raising money is hard as hell. Ask for in-kind donations for everything. You’ll be surprised what people will offer. Inflation’s impact on materials can really jack up your budget.

Visualize your project at BRC before it’s there. I’m mentioning this again, because I can’t tell you how crucial I feel this was for me. It helped me stay sane. I even made a playlist that embodied the emotions I wanted the project to have on people and included songs that were encouraging for me. I listened to it every day. 

Throw one epic event on playa and be done with it (if possible). The number of events I’ve now curated on and off playa for this project has officially taken me to pro-level. Remember to budget time, money and your asks of people towards planning events (fundraising). Consider collaborating with camps and/or art cars for events both on and off playa. Hosting too many on-playa events becomes exhausting.

The “Black! Asé” team (and a few others) after the PoC group photo on Friday evening in Black Rock City, 2022
Black Burner Project group photo at the after party in collaboration with Robot Heart & DJ Ameme, 2022

Believe in magic. It happened so many times. The humans on my team were pretty much magicians. The community and support has been overwhelmingly beautiful.

Be kind to yourself, and have fun during this process. Cry if you need to. Have fun. Find a jokester who can bring fun and encouragement to the team. Take care of yourself, so you can take care of your team. Find someone who will ensure you are being healthy on playa. Sing, dance and laugh often with your team. This makes long, hot build days more durable. Take it all in, feel your accomplishments, and try to be present throughout the week on playa. 

Plan ahead for your Burn recovery. You will not be the same person on the other side. People will ask, “What’s next?” It’s okay to not know. The recovery for some can be intense. After this experience, I now know I can do anything!

Be bold, Burners of Color. Believe in yourself. Create whatever’s in your heart. Own your magic, no matter what. Take up space wherever you are, with every moment you are blessed with… To understand why we need this is to have lived within the souls of our ancestors.

Lastly, Even though the thought of doing something that is big, bold and powerful may be daunting — (I’m talking to YOU, aspiring artist) — this is when the journey begins. If you have the desire, it’s meant for you. Go after it!

(Photo by Christian Lamb)

It takes a community. To all the people I met and worked with throughout this journey — those who touched this piece in any way: supported me, mentored and advised me, those who sent uplifting messages to keep going, and all the Burners who joyfully spent time with “Black! Asé” — you made this such a beautiful and humbling experience.

To the “Black! Asé” team — we did it! I am so proud of each person who was a part of this historic experience (starting from the very beginning, regardless of the role or time given). I am honored that this project received the gift of YOU. Your contribution was exponential in bringing “Black! Asé” to life. Our mission was grand. The purpose was and will continue to be extremely important. I hope you are proud of the impact we had. I hope you are inspired. I can’t wait to see what comes next for each of you in your creative journeys. 

Until I know what comes next… Thank you!

Group photo in front of “Black! Asé” on playa, 2022 (Photo by Erin Douglas of Black Burner Project)

Cover image of group photo in front of “Black! Asé,” 2022 (Photo courtesy of Erin Douglas)
All images courtesy of Erin Douglas unless otherwise noted

About the author: Erin Douglas

Erin Douglas

Erin Douglas is an experienced travel, lifestyle, and portrait documentary photographer, creative culture consultant, and founder of Black Burner Project — a multicultural movement driving diversity and inclusivity at Burning Man through photography and personal narratives. Erin creates and produces visually moving imagery that aligns with her mission of helping others connect authentically, with an emphasis on inclusive stories that encourage people to action. Erin’s work has been featured in Essence, NY Post, Runner’s World, The Baltimore Sun; and has exhibited in NYC, DC, Art Basel, and most recently as part of the "Boundless Space" auction at Sotheby’s.

22 Comments on “What I Learned from Bringing My First Art Piece to Black Rock City

  • Dustin says:

    Thanks for a lovely article. What you learned is valuable to anyone bring art, a camp, a mutant vehicle, pretty much anything, to the Black Rock Desert.

    PS: containers rule!

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  • Jim Foster says:

    This is such a great story. It is a tribute to the creator and all who contributed.

    Gemster

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  • Sue Kocher says:

    Wow! Beautiful story! Thank you for the inspiration and for sharing your grand mission!

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  • Yomi says:

    Beautifully put. It was a great and memorable experience. You lit the fire, we came to make it bigger.

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  • Ulan McKnight says:

    You have inspired so many. Thank you for sharing your light and your vision. And the team you built and nurtured… beautiful :)

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  • B.J. says:

    Erin thank you for this powerful story. You have inspired me in so many ways to continue my path. Like you, I am experiencing similar ups and downs, mistakes and failures with this process to bring an Art installation on the Playa.

    I happy to know that when I fall get up dust off and move forward …

    I do cry and sometimes I don’t have an ear to talk to but perhaps this could be a space I can come to on occasions as I need it. I know you will always be here for support.

    By You opening the opportunity to have dialogue here is so appreciated because I need it to maintain my sanity.

    I’m finding my path although rocky at times but after reading your story I know I’m on the right path.

    Like you I also am beginning to feel this amazing empowerment that I never felt as a black man.

    I’m stepping into the person I have been searching to be for a long time. I cried listening to your story because I realized I have you as one of my biggest supporters no matter the outcome..

    Thank you very much for your continued support and leading black burners on the right path to stay focused and make us feel we got this!!!

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    • Erin Douglas says:

      B.J, Wow! thank you for these words and your vulnerability. I always say, if its within you, its for you. The idea behind creating what you are isn’t surface, it comes from deep. Its for you to go after and fight for. Thank you for your support and I trust and believe you will find it all worth it. Less tied to the outcome and look at how the process is expanding you. Any questions please reach out. You got this, trust!

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  • Evil Pippi says:

    Wow, Erin! What an incredible post to read. The family you built, the people you are inspiring, and the movement you and the Black Asé crew created are all palpable with your words and photos. Thank you for sharing your reflections and alllll the lessons. Hats off!

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  • John says:

    You are an artist to the core. Lovely, Erin.

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  • Birdie Roy says:

    Wonderful, powerful and beautiful! Thank you Erin for your art and your inspiration.

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  • Jay D says:

    Thanks Erin for this lovely article and providing such a magical experience for me celebrating Black Ase! You are truly remarkable and a strong testament to what we are all so capable of.

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  • Lisa Argenton says:

    loved reading this article, great insight into a huge production

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  • Tony Ricucci says:

    Such a powerful inspiring & uplifting tale you shared. I wish for you to next year fashion your documentary film on how this was created, built & your team flourished! That’s my gift for you … to expand your squad + sphere of influence.
    All the best …’c00ch’

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  • Benna says:

    Thank you for your art and your article! It is needed and meaningful. Blessings to you!

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  • Ajenda says:

    What a terrific story! Thank you for bringing us on your journey and for doing all it took to express yourself out there. Your work is so inspiring.

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  • Vida says:

    Thank you for “Black! Asé” — a profound moment on the playa. Especially appreciated the audio soundtrack — is there anywhere we can re-find, re-list, re-visit?

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  • La Gata Rosa aka Snapz says:

    Thank you for being your vulnerable self, your informative and inspirational words speak to me. I feel that I can relate so much. Happy to hear your stories and see you begin to reflect. :)

    Wow what an accomplishment you have! Keep your memories alive. Thank you again for sharing <3

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