Burning Man: After the Dust Settles

By Jonah Ward

It was my time. This year I finally decided to attend Burning Man, the annual gathering held in desolate Black Rock City, Nevada that combines community, art and self-expression. It would be accurate to say that my artwork and its process, in its most literal form, lends itself to what Burning Man personifies. I burn wood with molten glass that results in fire, smoke and abstract works of art. People have constantly asked me if I had gone, but I would always reply to them saying that if I ever did go that I'd want to contribute somehow by either bringing an art piece or making art while I was there. I wanted to make it worth the journey, and trust me, it’s quite a journey.

Up until recently, to create my main series of artwork (Glass Burned Panels) I was confined to a glass hot shop, the only place I could access 2000-degree F molten glass. Thankfully, a new company out of Georgia (Mobile Glass Blowing Studios) started manufacturing mobile glass furnaces, so I bought one allowing me to take my process from the confines of a stationary hot shop to practically anywhere. All I needed was a tank of propane, power to run the blower, and a way to get it there. The acquisition of this equipment was paramount for my plan to make art while I was at Burning Man, and this series of art was the perfect process to bring and share with my fellow “burners.”

For my Burning Man debut I knew I needed to create a presence in order to draw enough attention amongst the continual cacophony of sights and sounds that ensue during one of the biggest festivals in the world. This event draws almost 70,000 people, and everyone is trying to express himself or herself and seek attention in his or her own way. I would be no exception.

I decided to go as big as my budget could afford and that my trailer could carry. I built a six panel piece of glass burned wood, each piece being 2’ wide x 8’ tall, with a total dimension of 12’ x 8’ to serve as a backdrop during the performances I was planning. This would also be the largest glass burned panel piece I have ever produced to date, so it had to be special. For the overall style and composition, I wanted to create something that interpreted and incorporated the theme of this year's event: “Da Vinci’s Workshop.” While researching Da Vinci, I kept going back to two visuals: one of a drawing of a pair of wings he drew; the other was a line drawing of the crescent moon-shaped map of Black Rock City, which overlaid a picture of the Mona Lisa found in the beautifully designed "Survival Guide" that accompanied the tickets. There was something about the radial patterns moving from the center outward that I connected with. I decided to use the latter as my muse, along with some of my signature upward stretching lines to represent life rising from the dry desert dust, and to my delight it turned out exactly how I intended. I had my stage.

After a twelve hour drive from the Bay Area with a large trailer in tow, I arrived at the dry, arid lake bed just as the sun rose brilliantly over the surrounding mountains, illuminating the vastness of the temporary city—my new home for the next seven days. A sense of astonishment came over me as I saw how massive this place was as I slowly drove through the radial streets to find my camp. People had already been there for a week or more setting up, but it was evident that there was still lots to do. Half-formed metal creatures lurked around every corner while thumping beats wafted through the air. 

I was staying at the Crossroads camp, the only camp in the entire city where a collective of 20 or so talented musicians take to the stage to sing and play live music. And by no means was it one of those "plug-n-play" camps. This was a work camp where everyone pitched in to build it and make it run, definitely a change of pace from the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) that amplified 24 hours a day in every nook of the city. The band was set to play Wednesday through Friday with a sound check on Tuesday evening. I decided that this would be the night I'd fire up my furnace and perform my first live demo. I found a spot nestled between the stage and DJ bar to set up my backdrop. There was a distinct difference in atmosphere and energy between day and night in the city. You could feel a growing collective commotion as the sun set and the stars emerged. 

People began to gather near anything that produced sound or light. As the band began to practice, I started to gather glass from my glowing hot furnace and began dripping the molten material onto the wood panels I brought from home. I burned for about two hours that night and for three hours Thursday night, receiving some fantastic feedback along the way, despite some minor issues I had with the glass. For some reason the glass wasn't burning hot enough, which I suspected was due to either to the altitude, or the alkaline dust mixing in with the glass. I was definitely making mental notes of what I could improve upon for if I ever returned. 

On one of the last nights when the ritual of burning the man took place, I sat there transfixed as the symbolic effigy that stands in the center of the city went up in flames, soaking in everything I had seen during my stay. I was in my element. I was like a kid in a candy store. Reaching this desolate place wasn't easy and is not something I’d recommend to the timid, but if you can endure a little dust and lack of a warm shower, then you will be rewarded and teleported to an oasis surrounded by the most unique sights and sounds you will ever experience. The event is nothing short of magical, almost as if time stands still. It was fascinating to see what humans are capable of building when brought together, just to all be torn down a week later with no evidence it was ever there.

Overall, I was thrilled with my first Burning Man experience not only because I survived the harsh environment for 7 days, but because I was able to contribute in a small way by sharing with other like-minded attendees the art and process I had been working on and evolving for the better part of my life. I couldn't think of a more rewarding experience than that.