Lessons from Burning Man: 7 ways to ignite change on your own

The following is adapted from my final lecture of the Distinguished Professorship I held at University of Montana, where I wanted to send my students out into the world with eyes wide open, and some preparation for the creative ruts they just might encounter along the way. They loved the fact that their prof had been to Burning Man, but even more, I hope, they’d appreciate that such experiences can be just the launchpad to personal evolution and exploration. Part of a collection of my travel stories and other personal essays

By Ron Reason

[Aug. 29, 2015] A VARIETY OF FRIENDS are waiting today in the miles-long line of vehicles to return to Burning Man, the annual festival (of art, music, dance, and spirituality, however broadly one may define that) in the Nevada desert. For them, and thousands of initiated others, it’s almost an expectation — once you go Black (Rock City), you’ll always go back. Or at least you’ll long to.

As a four-time participant in Burning Man, in the few years just before its social-media fueled hype machine really jumped the shark, I’ve been asked in recent weeks, by fellow Burners or others who learn I’ve been there: “Are you headed back to the playa this year?” And each time I respond with a version of my own story: “Nope. Been there, done that. I’m happy (ecstatic) to have found ways to ‘Burn’ out here in the real world.”

Burning Man actually did impact my life in many positive ways, so why not rush back? Because, as much as I can, I now use the lessons of Burning Man to try to explore and create and live and evolve the other 51 weeks of the year. (And really, who needs all that dust?)

Here’s how I’ve tried to do that, and how you might, too.

1. Put yourself in the path of artists, musicians, acrobats. Support and promote their work.

There’s nothing quite like mingling directly with the creatives who make Burning Man happen — the architects, DJs, flame jugglers, dancers, healers, opera singers, photographers, writers, fashionistas and others — to rewire your brain to appreciate art. Meet more than few of these folks and you’ll return to your regularly scheduled life with a new regard for artists in your own communities, and a desire to seek them out, join forces, celebrate them. They are everywhere, and they keep communities alive.

Shortly after my first Burn in 2008, experiencing a bit of a midlife career slowdown, I relocated my work to new office space in the Pilsen neighborhood in south Chicago. Turned out, the building, a former mattress factory, was the hub of a “Second Fridays” neighborhood gallery walk each month. After handing over the keys, the leasing agent said I was welcome to throw open my doors alongside other occupants — fashion photographers, architects, food stylists — who did the same, to sell or just show creative work of any sort. I had no experience as an artist or gallerist, but I was a fool with enthusiasm, and my mind started wondering: Why not?

Promo from “Change Today/ Change Tomorrow,” one of the exhibits at my gallery, which raised funds for the arts in Chicago public schools. See art from this exhibit at this link.

Over the next several years, I set aside time from my day job (as change consultant to news media companies), and created nearly two dozen exhibits and events, celebrating the work of dozens of artists and collectives. Some were friends, like the iconoclastic multimedia and video artist ASk/wish (link to his exhibit here), or the Middle Eastern multimedia collage artist Alex Aubry, but most were new folks I met along the way, like fiber artist Zina Castanuela, whose quiet but colorful imagination I stumbled on at a workshop at the Oxbow art institute in Michigan. Some were local luminaries I long admired from afar, like design and branding superstars Firebelly Design, who jumped at the chance to collaborate on two fundraiser exhibits that raised funds to benefit Chicago public schools and a library in Kenya. You just never know who’ll help you create something until you ask. Your enthusiasm and few blank walls may be all the invitation they need.

For the final exhibit before I ended my lease, I turned the space over to my gallery assistant, art student Justin Santora. He’s now world-class screenprinter of gig posters. Now, as then, he’s an all-around awesome guy, one I’d likely never have met nor supported were it not for Burning Man. (Peruse other exhibits and highlights of my gallery adventure here.)

The acquaintance and celebration of artists can happen easily, anywhere. After Burning Man, I sought out and made great friends with the owners of a contemporary art gallery in my tiny Indiana hometown, who last year asked me to curate a regional art competition, and I’ve met and supported a collective of outsider artists in a Kenya slum. Tours of Egypt, Nigeria and India have all been made more rich by touring galleries and studios and chatting with curators and artists. This year, meeting artists in Montana and Oregon has helped me make much richer life, and arrive at a quicker sense of place.

PRO TIP! OK, so what about you? Don’t have office space, or time or energy to “put on a show?” Fine. Do a one-off opening for an artist friend, or your own art, in your living room or office. Still too ambitious? Scour the local cultural listings and make a point to see one gallery show, poetry reading or recital per month. Research the artist online before you go, seek them out to say hi, ask what drives their work or what they’re up to next. They’ll love it and you’ll come
away inspired.

2. OK, so you’ve met a bunch of creatives? Great. Now become one yourself.

For too many years, I was overly work obsessed, until the recession, and dark fortunes of my industry (ah, newspapers!) gave me more spare time than I wanted. What to do? Who the heck was I, anyway, when not defined by work? Time to find out.

I picked up my camera and mostly noodled around in search of answers. But it was Burning Man, and my gallery adventures, that kicked me in the ass, told me that maybe I could create some “art” too, and forced me off the couch and into the world.

Just for the hell of it, I photographed roller derbies, the county fairs in my small Indiana home town, rugby matches, and Obama’s first victory rally in Grant Park. Turns out, even the slightest attempt at being creative is more fun and productive than being stuck in your rut. Who knew?

What’s more fun than photographing the roller derby? Nothing, I tell you. Juana Brawl and the Windy City Rollers, in action. More photos of the team here.  [Photo by Ron Reason]

Along the way, I became more confident and my work got better. And guess what? After putting my work online, others took notice. Fellow curators in Chicago asked me to exhibit, and magazines in places like London, Berlin and Nairobi asked to publish my work, in print and online. Time Out Tel Aviv published a spread of photos I took of a mass gay wedding on the beach there during Pride. (I arrived too late to shoot from the official press gallery, but, when shoved to the back of the stage, ended up with some killer shots that no one else had.) Earlier this year, Voyeur, the inflight magazine for Virgin Australia Airlines, asked (and paid) to publish one of my photos they found online — from Burning Man.

PRO TIP! As they say: Just do it. Don’t wait for a commission, or an assignment, or the promise of a paycheck to get off your feet and start creating your thing, whatever it is, photography or ceramics or poetry. Do it, a lot, for your own enjoyment, and you’ll get better, and eventually people will notice. Consider all your pursuits a work in progress, or as I did, a freelanced “master’s degree in fine arts.” You won’t get that piece of paper, but it won’t cost you a fortune, either.

3. Discover your own zen, your therapy, your special place. Own it.

Hundreds found their centering at this yoga class at sunset at the Burning Man’s Temple of Transition, in 2011. Where do you find yours? Click here for more of my photos of the Temple of Transition and here for other albums of Burning Man people, art, architecture and culture. [Photo by Ron Reason]

At Burning Man, you can take or teach classes in meditation, yoga, crystal healing, chakra grounding and all that. The place, and event, exudes spirituality of all kinds (but, notably, few trappings of organized religion). Hell, they even erect an astounding, jaw-dropping Temple each year, filled with revery, remembrance and evidence of life and death, healing and growth and loss.

Being around people and spaces that seemed calm, grounded and conscious made me more diligent, back in the “default world,” about finding something to lessen my own stress. In particular, urban life in Chicago was making me more anxious and unfulfilled by the year. The answer, for me, turned out to be as much time in wilderness as possible.

Sunrise last Thursday morning at Upper Crystal Lake, Mt. Rainier National Park. My happy place! More photos from this magical place. [Photo by Ron Reason].

I acquired a small cottage in a National Lakeshore that proved the perfect antidote to my place in the overcrowded, overbuilt Second City. I stopped visiting world hot spots and became obsessed with our National Parks — I’ve now visited nearly 50 of them, many repeatedly, and just moved to Portland, which puts me in close proximity to five of them. I vowed to learn the ins and outs of backcountry camping, and in the last year I spent weeks in glorious distant pockets of our Great Western Lands that few people get to see. With each visit, I come away healed and humbled.

PRO TIP! Most people live within some proximity to nature, if this is your zen thing. If not a National Park, then find the nearest nature preserve or at least a city park, and get your butt there more often. Find the least crowded or noisy spot you can, some pocket that speaks to you, and visit it repeatedly. Make it your church. You’ll calm down and notice rich new details each time you visit. Back in your office or chaotic home life, you can draw on what you remember to help calm you down. (For inspiration, or if you just can’t find your wilderness happy space yet, read “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.”) Nature not quite your thing? Fine — church or yoga or tai chi or journaling may provide you with some centering. Cultivate a practice and you’ll start to zen out.

4. Make the time and energy to lend a hand.

I admit it. Until being (gently) beaten over the head at Burning Man with their mantra, “contribute to the community,” I was a slacker about volunteering, there or elsewhere. During my first year or two at the Burn, I puzzled over the question: What do I have to give back, especially in the culture here, already crazy rich with creative giving? Eventually I volunteered for the worldwide collaborative photography project, Why Do You Do What You Do? and ended up having a ball meeting and photographing wide range of Burners, who gladly posed for portraits with their answers to that question. (See quotes and images of the eclectic people we met here.)

Back in the real world, it was the recession, again, and some time on my hands, that jump-started my efforts to volunteer.

Kids say — and make — the darnedest things! Scene from volunteering in an art classroom in the Chicago Public Schools. [Photo by Ron Reason]

I answered call to help out in the art classroom of a public school in a lower class neighborhood of Chicago. My work was no great shakes — I distributed crayons, collected scissors, told lots of kids their work was great, helped a recent Somali immigrant produce a diorama of dinosaurs. But it was rewarding to me, and to this day I remain great friends with the teacher, Barbara Meyers, and I have great respect for teachers, students and artists from underprivileged communities who struggle to find the resources or drive to create art.

I’ve also at times photographed charity events, worked in a food pantry and donated prints for charity silent auctions. All of it has the potential to lead to new friendships, and sometimes yes, networking for my business. What goes around sometimes comes around.

PRO TIP! Don’t have a day a week to give to a neighborhood school, or food pantry? Ask co-workers to bring in food the next time your postal carrier is collecting food for the local pantry, and be the person who hauls the bags home and leaves them at your mailbox, or drops them off at your grocer if they have a collection box. Or if you have a skill you can share during an hour or two a week?—?walk a dog for an elderly neighbor, or just visit with them?—?consider that. Quite often your own problems then seem small by comparison.

5. Create your own communities.

A lot of Burning Man is centered around creating community from void. For many of us, we just sort of land in, and exist, in a certain community, be it geographic, political, vocational, or whatever.

But sometimes, something is missing. One of the pitfalls of Burning Man may be that your old groups no longer serve you as they once did?— maybe they party too much or think too conservatively or fall into old habits too easily?—?and you need to connect with a new tribe. Make it happen!

In fits and starts, I’ve made efforts to bring people together. I assembled folks for sunrise meditation on Lake Michigan (well, that was more fits, with not so many people answering the call via a blog and notices on community bulletin boards). More recently, I started gathering a group of guys who like to backpack in the Pacific Northwest – off to a great start, with 200 guys now on board with private Facebook page, including two who got engaged and then married after meeting up for a hike. I’ve learned not to wait around for an invite to a group that may not exist — make it happen.

PRO TIP! Check Meetup.com and similar sites to see if social groups exist for your new interests. If they don’t, start one. Or join neighborhood website like NextDoor and post a notice that you’d like to gather folks for a potluck to acquaint neighbors or suggest cultural outing. You may be surprised at how easy it may be to make new friends to head out on the town, or into the woods, with.

6. Seek out kooks wherever you can.

Burning Man is filled with people who really know how to laugh and dance, even in the face of dust storms! Who create fabulous costumes out of thrift store curtains and Army-Navy surplus! Who walk down the street singing songs to themselves or reciting poetry on the fly or do backflips on a trampoline for no reason whatsoever.

Not a kook, but a super creative: I first met Portland performance artist Isaiah Tillman at Critical Mascara, part of the Time Based Art festival of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. For more photos of the event, visit this link. [Photo by Ron Reason]

And you know what? Turns out those Burners have to live somewhere out in the real world the rest of the year. Seek them out. You’ll find they have a wry outlook on life that might be in line with your own. Take it from me: These people are really fun to be around. They make it easier to take life less seriously, and to get through the tough stuff. They inspire you to go to your crazy places.

PRO TIP! Many communities have regional Burns, called decompressions, or related events that might help acquaint you to Burners, even if you can’t attend the big event in the Nevada desert, which face it, can be a costly hassle. They have fun parties, art exhibits, civic conversations and other gatherings. To learn more about regional Burning Man events, visit this page.

7. Finally … Can’t get to the Burn, or don’t want to, but seek really sensational ritual to base your year around? Make your own.

For many Burners, the annual festival is a super holiday, something to anchor the year, to prepare for and celebrate. It’s an adult’s Christmas on steroids.

After Burn No. 4, I concluded that, while I loved camping, I hated doing it in the desert, dust and heat. And the crowds — particularly during the commute into and out of Black Rock City — made me anxious. There were other places I want to see, and things I wanted to do, in the world, and I felt it wasn’t a bad idea to just get my butt out of the way. Why not make room for some of the many, many others who wanted to experience the event find their own ticket and dive in?

Scene from a post-Burn Labor Day adventure: first multi-day backpacking trip in the High Sierra. More galleries of my many visits to the National Parks are here. [Photo by Ron Reason]

So now, every year for the weeks aroud Labor Day since my last Burn (2012), instead of heading off to the desert with the masses, I attempt to discover and generate my own beauty and wonder somewhere else in the world. In 2013, I put my energies and money toward three weeks exploring Alaska, including visits to five more National Parks. In 2014, I geared up and learned how to tackle backcountry trekking, spending two weeks in the Yosemite and High Sierra wilderness. This year, it feels like the mother of all adventures: I’ve just moved to Portland, Ore. Throughout all of it, I try to improve my photography, and share it with others, mostly informally, but you never know when something might get published.

Think I’m missing Black Rock City this year? Um, not so much, having moved to Portland, a city that sort of lives and breathes the Burner aesthetic: Find your weird. Celebrate it. Live it.

PRO TIP! You may already have your annual thing that really cranks your chain — Christmas, Election Day, whatever. If not, why not spice up your birthday with an annual potluck, make your friends throw you party? A wine fan, but can’t make it to Napa? Host an autumn wine party, ask everyone to bring a favorite red or white (or two) to share. Not a sports fan but longing for something fun and communal to do New Year’s Day? Have an annual book exchange, ask your friends to save up and bring books they’ve read and are now ready to part with, to swap for others from you or your guests. Or why not go all-out Burner and paint a huge mural in the intersection of your street! (Ok, maybe that last one’s a real Portland type of thing. Check to see if you need a permit, in any event.)


About the author: Ron Reason has consulted with news organizations, universities, private business and nonprofits around the world, takes pictures, writes poems, and wanders around in the woods. He is a resident of Portland, Ore. For the first half of 2015 he served as the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, teaching a seminar on innovation and disruption in the news media.

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