Earth Energy: An Interview with Burning Man Co-founder Will Roger Peterson

Photographer, conservationist, and Burning Man Co-founder Will Roger Peterson lives in Gerlach with his life partner and fellow Co-founder Crimson Rose. His remarkable photography, whether captured in his home studio or in the surrounding Black Rock Desert, speaks of the power and mystery of the natural world. We had the opportunity to speak with Will about his inspiration and daily practice as an artist, and his belief in the potential of creative flow to change how humanity engages with Mother Nature. 

Will at his “Bouquets Ablaze” exhibit, 2022 (Photo courtesy of the artist)

How long have you been creating your flower portraits and what is your process in the studio?

I started in Oakland. It’s a good story. Crimson knew that I love flowers. So she would weekly buy me a cut flower bouquet, and we would put it on the table and then they would die, you know? But I wanted to do something to commemorate the bouquets and to thank Crimson for being really good about buying flowers every week. So I set up a little studio in Oakland. In my master’s thesis I used a technique called peripheral strip photography, which involves putting something on a turntable. And then there’s a whole technical thing that happens with that. 

What I wanted to do was just show the flowers and make them more alive than they really were. I wanted to show the magic in it if I could. So I set up a turntable, strobe lights, and a flashlight. Then getting the exposure levels on all of that is very complicated. It took me a couple of months to figure out how to make good exposures and how to make it work. 

So once I got that, I had a studio that worked, and then we did a renovation and I had to move the studio, and then I couldn’t get it to work again. Took me like a year to figure out what was going wrong. And then it happened again. Finally I moved it here [Gerlach, Nevada]. And I’ve been doing it here for a few years. So it’s probably been close to 20 years of flowers if I look back at the original ones, which look very different, and yet are similar to what I’m doing now. So there’s a thread through it all.

“Bouquets Ablaze,” 2022 (Photos by Will Roger Peterson)

What time or place or environment best suits your creative process?

I’m a trained studio artist. That’s where my background is. So I walk into my little studio in Gerlach and I can feel the creation energy there because I’ve worked in that place a lot, and it feels comfortable. So some of it is your intention. For me, the place itself is a marker for bringing up that creation energy. The other place is anywhere outside. As soon as you go outside, you’re under the influence of the planetary cycles, right? So you walk outside and there’s a moon and a sun, and all of a sudden there’s a dynamic and a connection that has been repeated by humans for two million years.

I feel like that when I’m doing my walks; we have a labyrinth here in Gerlach that we walk every day and another one out at Fly Ranch that we walk on Sundays. That’s a very special place because the horizon is visible to the east, and you have mountains to the west. It’s a magnificent valley in Nevada and you can feel the creation energy there. You feel the connection to the Earth and to the moon and the stars and all of that, especially at night.

Can you explain your philosophy of Earth energy?

Earth energy is creation energy. If you look at where we come from as an evolved species on a planet, we’re made up of materials from the planet. So I try to find my inspiration working with the elements from the Earth — which we all do, no matter what. Everything that you see scattered in this office behind me, everything behind me was made from stuff from the Earth. Okay? So for me, Earth energy is everything. And so I try to work with that. 

What I’m doing is showing people that there’s magic all around us all the time. The fact that we’re on this rock flying through an infinite universe, and that this rock happened to have the right materials to create life. And that life started with a single cell, and it evolved into millions of species of different plants and birds and reptiles and mammals, and we’re all part of that — there’s a magic and a creation and a mystery to all of that. If I can get people to see that, and to find who they are in it, then maybe we have a chance to save our habitat on this planet Earth.

Fly Ranch Labyrinth Walk, 2022 (Photo by Will Roger Peterson)

Do you have any strategies you use when you are feeling stuck creatively?

I think there’s something about daily practice that’s really important. The dominant cycle for humans and everything on the planet is the revolution of the Earth. So sunset, sunrise, we have light, we have dark, that’s daily. I mean, that happens every day of our lives. And we take it for granted. We don’t even really think about it. But the daily cycle is the most important cycle. It runs our bodily functions. It runs a lot of different things.

So if you as an artist put something in your life that’s a ritual that happens daily, then I think you’ve achieved a lot. For me, daily practice is going for a walk at sunset every night. And I haven’t missed that in, I don’t know, probably 10 years. It’s more important than anything else. And if I’m somewhere else, I just go for a walk. And that has created a framework for me of creativity.

As an artist, you need to recognize that you need to connect it to the Earth. And that happens with daily practice. If you’re a writer, write every day, even if it’s just a sentence, but write every day. If you’re a musician, you should practice every day. As human beings, we need to practice being human every day <laughs>. We don’t even do that. We’re in a fog, we’re in a dream most of the time. It’s the dream that our culture wants us to be in, to be consumers. To deal with creation energy outside of the dream that’s being imposed on us creates clarity.

Is it better to be creative on your own or to work in a team?

A lot of my work is alone. The solo artist has always been an important contributor to our culture. On the other hand, the idea of collective art and collective consciousness, and working towards a common goal with a group is phenomenal. There’s nothing quite like it because everyone gets buoyed. Their spirit rises because of everyone. I guess it’s the best use of the term synergy; the collective result is much greater than the individual parts. So you have a synergy that happens with the group, with group art. 

David Best is a good example. David Best has a way to inspire everyone that hasn’t anything to do with the art that he’s creating. He brings that inspiration to them, and that creates a collective consciousness and this incredible flow that happens. It might look impossible to meet the deadlines, then all of a sudden the flow is activated and things get done early. It’s just remarkable to see the machine that happens when you have a collective consciousness like that.

Larry Harvey burned a thing on a beach with Jerry James, and there was a creative moment, and everybody saw it. I mean, the rest of the people on the beach just ran down to see the Man burn. Larry had an incredible way of enlisting everyone in his creative ideas. The Burning Man community is a result of that. He was inspired every day, every moment. The guy was a walking creation machine. He was a great human being. 

I miss him terribly, but I also feel that he is with me because he taught me in many ways how to take risks as an artist. I could never thank him enough. I miss him because of the parody and the craziness and the art spirit that would happen. I’m working to create that same thing in my own life, inspiring people in a much different way — by getting people to wake up and take risks and take chances and be real and be who they really are, not who they think they are.

Black Rock City, 2016 (Photo by Will Roger Peterson)

Which of your creations are your most proud of?

My book, Handbook for a Burning Age, is right now the most important thing I’ve done because it involves my photography of nature and my writing about how important the art spirit is in making this next step as humanity towards saving our habitat. 

How can an individual — or humanity as a whole — tap into new creative possibilities?

Good ideas and possibilities are always there for us. And yet, we’re in a fog most of the time that doesn’t allow us to see the opportunities and the possibilities that exist. Once in a while, we wake up and then an opportunity comes by and we take it and it’s life changing, and we go change our lives. And all of that’s cool. 

But really we’re in a creation flow where there’s creative possibility and inspiration there all the time. The big point there is to remove our inner dialogue from the present moment. If we can do that, then the opportunities of creation flow in. That’s what happens when you get into a flow, an artistic flow. Your inner voice doesn’t interfere because you’re not questioning it, you just let it happen. I believe that we could be in that heightened state all the time, and if we did that, it would change the way humans live on the planet. We would be in creation energy, and we would be happier and more powerful and more in tune with the reality that we’re in on this planet in an infinite universe. 

It’s vital. If we don’t walk through this door of creation energy, if we don’t walk through that door together as humanity, then Mother Nature is going to cause us to walk through that door painfully, let’s put it that way. So what I’m trying to do as an artist is wake people up before we get to the point that Mother Nature causes us to wake up. And we may already be past that point, I don’t know.


Cover photo by Gary Geer

About the author: Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger (aka kbot) is a strategist on Burning Man Project's Communications team. No, that doesn't mean she sits around playing chess and making Venn diagrams. Rather, she works within and outside the organization to gather, develop and share stories about Burning Man culture and community.

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