San Francisco Social Diary: Burning Man

At the annual Burning Man festival, a weeklong communal artistic and musical event, tens of thousands of creative types and free spirits create a temporary, magical “city” in the remote Nevada Desert.

Black Rock, Nev. – During the week leading up to Labor Day, almost 70,000 revelers will gather in the Black Rock desert in Nevada, 110 miles north of Reno, to experience the annual Burning Man Festival, an elaborate and colorful art spectacle like no other in the world. The festival takes its name from the ritual burning of a wooden effigy known as the “Man,” an ancient and primal ritual.

Massive crowds gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert annually to celebrate the Burning Man festival of art, music, pageantry and community.

In this barren playa (dry lake bed), once the Pleistocene-era Lake Lahontan, people from all around the world and all walks of life gather to create an experimental and communal experience devoted to art, music, and joyful self-expression. The temporary “city” they create, one of Nevada’s largest, vanishes after a week, leaving the desert pristine once again.

As seen from the air, Black Rock City, in the middle of nowhere, becomes a temporary community with tens of thousands of people arriving from all over the globe.

The 2013 The Man stood atop a 50-foot diameter wooden “flying saucer” as though it had descended from the heavens to save the human race.

The 2013 festival culminated in the ritual burning of the Man, a tradition that began in San Francisco in 1986.


I’d first heard Burning Man mentioned five years ago, but took notice only last year when friends worldwide were headed to Black Rock for the event. But what was it?

When I received and took a look at Burning Man: Art on Fire, the coffee table book written by Jennifer Raiser, a friend who’s been involved with the festival for years, I finally started to get it—and wow, was I impressed!

Jennifer Raiser’s Burning Man: Art on Fire features eye-catching photography of this remarkable phenomenon.

Dressing in costume is part of the fun, and one year Jennifer Raiser dressed as Marie Antoinette in mourning.


Tantalized by the testimonials and the stunning images taken by Sidney Erthal and Scott London in Burning Man: Art on Fire, I immediately added attending the festival to my bucket list. (You might, too.)

Bryan Tedrick’s steel Coyote, 2013. The seven-ton, 23-foot-high native creature was chosen as a tribute to the adjacent tribal lands.

Ilya Piper’s Cathedral of Celestial Mathgic, 2013. Touching the lit tips of the geometric stars elicited a musical sound.

Stefano Corazza’s A Field of Sunflower Robots, 2006. Robotic sunflowers made of neon and LED lights and powered by solar panels followed the arc of the sun.

Kate Raudenbush’s Altered State, 2008, was made of powder-coated steel, plexiglass, and rope.

Marco Cochrane’s Truth is Beauty, 2013. The festival’s open-minded culture inspired the artist to create a massive sculpture depicting a female nude in a state of joy.


Back in 1986, the Burning Man tradition began in San Francisco on the long, pristine white sand Baker Beach. To celebrate the summer solstice, friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James built an eight-foot human effigy from scrap lumber found on the beach.

When they lit the “Man” on fire, a small crowd gathered to watch. Someone started playing guitar, people began singing along, and from that serendipitous beginning evolved an annual celebration that grows ever more expansive, mind-boggling, and unusual.

San Francisco’s Baker Beach offers unsurpassed views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, where the annual Burning Man ritual began.

The original effigy in 1986 stood eight feet tall. By 1988, it had grown into the 30-feet effigy pictured being built on Baker Beach.


The effigy burn continued in San Francisco for three more years, but by 1990 the event had grown too large and was considered a fire hazard. So the Man was built on Baker Beach and then taken to burn at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where friends of Larry and Jerry had attended a wind sculpture event the prior year.

The remote desert location made larger crowds and greater artistic freedom possible. Although getting there is difficult and planning for the week-long event is complicated, still people come.

The original group of watchers has grown from three-dozen to tens of thousands, and the once eight-foot-tall Man has grown to 40 feet atop a base of up to 64 feet. In 2014, the largest-ever effigy, a 105-foot Man, was burned.

The 2009 art theme was “Evolution” and the Man’s base consisted of irregularly shaped triangles representing “the chaos at the heart of life.”

When the 2006 Man was set afire amid 400 square miles of flat nothingness, fireworks exploded and the Man burned at length in a dazzling and exciting show.


Burning Man to me is an update of a ’60s “happening”: a combination of performance art and audience participation. Now there are Burning Man celebrations across the US and in 26 different countries, but Jennifer says the event could only have only started in San Francisco, with its tradition of free expression, free love, inclusiveness, and a “try anything” attitude.

In 2014, nearly 70,000 attendees (known as “Burners”) arrived in the playa with costumes, food, water, and boundless enthusiasm, and set up themed camps and villages. Here, strangers come together to “foster inclusion, participation, and enthusiastic expression as one tribe,” explains Jennifer. There’s little talk of quotidian matters and no cell phone reception or Wi-Fi. It’s all about being in the moment.

The 60,000-strong audience watching a burn in 2011. Cut off from the world, participants come to dance, express themselves, and experience the spectacle.

Burners in 2013 waiting for the burn of the Man to start. This art couldn’t be done anywhere else, and it’s collaborative and participatory.


I was curious how Jennifer, a Harvard MBA who for 17 years juggled work as a manager of luxury retirement communities with writing for numerous publications, became Treasurer of the Burning Man Project non-profit.

It all began in 2006, when her brother Phillip Raiser told her to pack a costume and took her to her first Burning Man. She was immediately hooked by the art and has returned annually ever since.

“I’d never seen anything like it anywhere else on the planet.” Jennifer says. “For one week a year, it’s the largest art gallery in the world. And then it disappears.”

Jennifer’s brother Phillip Raiser created the double decker Kazbus as a modern souk, used for art tours and other playa conveyance.


Other than safety regulations, the only requirements are that any installation engages the audience and is in some way participatory. The Burning Man guidelines stipulate that the art “must inspire, engage, question, puzzle, amuse, seduce, and otherwise influence the citizens of Black Rock City.”

Jennifer points out that there are no velvet ropes, no curators, no judges. Everyone responds in his or her own way. Each year, more than 400 pieces of art are displayed. Some are burned at the end of the festival and the remainder are packed up to go elsewhere.

Carey Thompson’s Starport, 2012, made of wood, metal, and LED lights.

Warmbaby’s The Wet Dream, 2011, created by an English architectural collective to represent English rain falling to the heat-soaked desert.

Duane Flatmo’s El Pulpo Mecanico, 2012. The mechanical octopus is made of reclaimed scrap metal and burns flames from its eight trashcan tentacles.


The installations are art on a grand scale, staggeringly large and varied. The artists work without restrictions and without pay, and the work reflects their free spirit and ardor.

Uchronia, 2006, by Jan Kriekels, Arne Quinze, and Maurice Engelen. The giant free-form structure was constructed with pine scrap wood and nail guns by 100 Belgian workers.

Temple of Transition, 2011. Each year a new temple is designed and built as a spiritual place, and is always located at the very top of the city, north of the Man.

Temple of Juno, 2012, designed by David Best. The wooden temple is a sacred space for contemplation, without any religious or denominational dogma.

Zoa at sunrise in 2012. It celebrated the cycle of creation and was composed of wood and metal by Jess Hobbs and Flux Foundation.

Zoa on fire in 2012.

Xylofage, 2013, made of metal, propane, wood, plaster, and plastic, was created by the Flaming Lotus Girls.


Along with amazing art, the festival fosters a sense of community. People must bring in their own food and water. Bartering and selling—except for coffee and ice, a necessity in the sweltering summer heat—are not allowed. Gifting is encouraged, however.

For the sheer pleasure of sharing, people give away efforts, ideas, and useful items, a grand mix that includes massages, meals, cocktails, art tours, musical interludes, and sunscreen, helping others they’ve only just met. The spirit of inclusion, participation, and spontaneous community make the event a celebration of what a good place the world can be.

Members of the 300-strong Fire Concave perform just before the Man burns.

Serpent Mothers, 2006, by the Flaming Lotus Girls, a San Francisco-based art collective, was a 168-foot-long sculpture of a skeletal dragon-like serpent.

The interior of the 2012 Temple of Juno, dedicated to the goddess. It had a 150-foot walled courtyard and was covered with intricately cut wooden panels.

Front Porch is a mobile home, hand-crafted from reclaimed weathered wood and penny nails, towed by a vintage John Deere tractor.

Jon Sarriugarte’s The Golden Mean, 2012, was made of copper and steel. It travels at a snail’s pace, as there’s a playa-enforced 5 mph rule.

Burners welcomed pirates and privateers to explore the hull, journals, maps, and more aboard the life-sized Spanish galleon La Llorona in 2012.


Jennifer’s mother, Helen Hilton Raiser, came to the festival in 2008, when the theme was “American Dream.” To honor their father, the late John Raiser, Jennifer’s brother Phillip Raiser, along with Robert Simmons, Mik Hillebrand, and Arthur Rodriguez, built a 10-story tower named Babylon.

The massive tower of Babylon, built in honor of John Raiser, was constructed in only four days and provided a bird’s-eye view of the festival.

The Babylon tower was able to support a few thousand spectators at once, and played host to weddings, sunrise yoga sessions, and slumber parties.

Jennifer Raiser, a long-time Burner, volunteers as a Black Rock Ranger.

For the past decade, Jennifer has bunked down in style in her 1967 silver Airstream trailer, upholstered in leopard and called the “CocoCabana.”


In the book’s foreword, writer Will Chase, who publishes Burning Man’s online newsletter, sums up the festival succinctly: “Burning Man, at its core, is a permission engine. It gives you permission to create practically anything you want while surrounded by people eager to help and to celebrate with you. For any artist, it’s the best place on Earth to find out who you are, and who you could be.”

I didn’t get enough of a head start to participate in Burning Man 2015, the theme of which is “Carnival of Mirrors.” But I’m going to let my imagination run wild—since Burning Man is all about expanding boundaries—and I’m hoping to be there as a Burner in 2016.


On another note, in San Francisco last spring Jennifer’s friends threw her a book-signing party for the publication of Burning Man: Art on Fire, with photography by Sidney Erthal and Scott London.

Co-hosts were Jennifer’s dear friends, designers Jay Jeffers and Michael Purdy, along with Chip Conley (founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels and now AirBnB’s Head of Global Hospitality) and industrial designer Yves Béhar and his partner, art consultant Sabrina Buell.

Designer Jay Jeffers, author Jennifer Raiser, and Cavalier Creative Director Michael Purdy hosted a book signing party.

Three generations of Burners: daughter Addie Bacon, Jennifer Raiser, and her mother Helen Hilton Raiser.

I Left it on the Mountain author Kevin Sessums, Jennifer Raiser, book photographer Sidney Erthal, and writer Emilio Mesa.

Jennifer Dalati and Aida Dalati.

Sergey Sharapov and Clara Shayevich.

Barbara Brown, Susan Dunlevy, Jennifer Raiser, Mary Beth Shimmon, and Jenna Hunt.

Interior Designer Claudia Juestel, Jennifer Raiser, and Anthony Murphy.

Jorge Maumer, Teresa Rodriguez, and Christopher Goff.


The party invitation read, “Playa dust not required, but radical self-expression is encouraged.” Guests arrived at Jeffers’s and Purdy’s Cavalier Goods on Post Street, an interior design shop in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (newly dubbed the “TrendyLoin” thanks to gentrification).

Evian Gordon, Phil Pixon, Jennifer Raiser, William Rekshan, and Daniel Rekshan.

Jennifer Raiser and Sonya Molodetskaya, whose daring fashion choices would make her right at home at Burning Man.

Fellow Burners Maurice Kelly and David Reposar showed up in their playa finery.

Fashion designer Karen Caldwell, Jennifer Raiser, Clara Shayevich, and Meg Starr.

Jennifer Raiser and Banana Republic CEO Jack Calhoun.

Christine Murolo, Jennifer Raiser, and Maria Barrios.

Raiser’s Harvard classmates Paul Connolly and Diana Nelson came to support her.

Jennifer Raiser with Ann and Tony Campodonico.

Damion Matthews, Jennifer Raiser, and realtor Joel Goodrich.

Larissa Archer and her troupe of belly dancers wove their way through the convivial crowd.

Raiser’s elaborate Indian mehndi evoked festivity in the dusty Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held.

While waiting for this year’s Burning Man trip, Jennifer finished what I expect will be another gorgeous book, In the Spirit of Napa, with publisher Assouline.


Photographs by Drew Altizer, Sidney Erthal, Scott London, Stewart Harvey, and Wikimedia Commons.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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