The Legacy and Artistry of Building the Man
The Burning Man figure started it all and has stood at the center of Black Rock City for decades. Many myths and legends of its origins have been passed down through the years. It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. We took a deep dive with the earliest builders of the Burning Man to chart the evolution and decode the mythology. We also spoke with members of the current team that bring the figure to life year after year. We explore the craftsmanship of the build, the rituals of the crew’s process, and the secret details that make the Burning Man sculpture so unique.
LARRY “It originally was a bunch of mainly carpenters that I knew – that I recruited – to build this thing. And during all the time that we did it, not one of them ever asked me what it meant, what it represented. Of course they didn’t have to ask me what it meant. It was us.”
STUART: Welcome. Welcome. Welcome back to another episode of Burning Man Live. I’m Stuart Mangrum.
ANDIE: I’m Andie Grace.
STUART: Hey Andie. So everybody, we did a bit of an experiment for this week’s episode. Rather than try to, ramp everything together into a single show.
For this week’s episode, we did a little bit more of an in-depth piece, where we talked to a lot of folks along a timeline related to the Man. Yes. The Burning Man, the Man itself, the sculpture that sits at the middle of our city and is something of a pole star for the culture. Who’s behind it? Who builds it? Who are these people? And what’s that look like over the course of the last 30 years.
ANDIE: I love that word polestar because it is really. It’s the one constant that has always existed at whatever this Burning Man gathering might be, wherever we’ve held it. And in fact, as you look at regional gatherings, a lot of people want to do that sort of central figure that they burn. And, and yet coming to see the Man burn in black BlackRock city has become this, this journey all on its own. People might be curious. How did that start and how did the Man become the icon at the center of our city that it is today?
STUART: Well, I know it’s, it’s always been there. It was there when nothing else was there, when the event first started out on Baker Beach, right.
ANDIE: It was the whole thing. That was, that was the event.
STUART: Let’s build a man out of wood and set it on fire.
ANDIE: Yep, and there’s a lot of history there as far as how people, strangers, started to interact with that immediately when they did it and, and ran up the beach to see what was going on.
I think that must be what convinced them to do it again and again, and yet there’s this sort of craftsmanship that stayed at the center of it. This act of getting together to build it has become, I hate to use the word sacred, but it feels like it’s a pretty weighty responsibility to build this beautiful thing that so many people are going to come together and watch immolate.
It seems like that has been present since the very beginning. They almost seem to know right away that they were doing something pretty impressive.
STUART: And they labor in obscurity. Most people just think the Man is there, right. They show up, Man’s already up. Hey, there’s just a Man. Did they just get like 20 of them at a time, built offshore and shipped over in a container? Actually that would save us a lot of money.
ANDIE: It’s true. A lot of people never get to get close enough up to the Man to really see the craftsmanship that is involved in how much care is put into building this thing. That’s going to be destroyed and given back to the elements. We will never get to get close enough up to the Man to see exactly how much craftsmanship goes into it.
And it’s very, in depth and exciting, and there’s so much work that every year, is recreated again and again. And I thought that might be interesting to explore, who are these people? Why did they do that? And what keeps people coming back?
STUART: Now, every week we talk about Burning Man, Burning Man, Burning Man, Burning Man. This week, we’re going to talk about the Burning Man. That’s right. That big wooden effigy that stands at the center of our, of our world. That’s our axis mundi, that’s our polestar. Where does it come from? Who are these people who build it?
ANDIE: And what does it mean?
STUART: What does it mean? Well, that one’s clear. It means whatever the hell you want it to mean. We’ve always gone to great lengths to not tell people what it means so they can have their own personal experience of it. And boy, people do project an infinite range of emotions and feelings and ideas onto that, that sort of empty center.
ANDIE: We hear a lot of that, it’s true. But it turns out that going back in time, everyone who’s ever been involved with building it has always been very careful to say that it doesn’t mean anything in particular.
And I wanted to dive into that a little bit and talk to some of them about why they built it and what they thought it meant at the time and whether they could have imagined what it would become.
ANDIE: It’s a talisman of self-expression, an international icon of creativity, an exquisitely handcrafted work of art, and it’s about to die. You’re standing out on the open desert in Black Rock City underneath the Burning Man. It towers above you, 40 feet tall on top of its pedestal. So you climb up to get a closer look.
The closer you get, the more you see the details. There’s care here. Real craftsmanship planks that are lovingly bent, joinery, beautiful up close. The Man looks more like expensive cabinetry than a stick figure that was built to burn in a bonfire. In this episode, we’re going to meet the women and men that create the Burning Man here.
The truth rising from the ashes of its origin. Myth will debunk the lies and rumors that swirl around it and break down the secrets hidden. Lovingly crafted inside. Jerry James is really the original man builder alongside Larry Harvey. Although we don’t often hear his take on how all this began. Larry and Jerry were friends.
And that first man was a project between the two of them, Jerry and Larry were young men when they met in San Francisco partaking in the local creative scene.
JERRY JAMES: Larry and I met in 1985 and we had a few things in common. We met at a party. It was a bunch of folks that were like myself builders and other folks that were kind of artsy people. And so Larry and I met there and started socializing and soon found out that we certainly had an interest in books in common. both had, I mean, That’s certainly read my share of good books.
He’d read a lot more and that became quickly apparent. And, we both had young sons that were around five, six years old. So eventually we did a lot of stuff together with them. As summer solstice approached, Larry called me just out of the blue on the day of the summer solstice and asked if I wanted to go build a figure to commemorate the event.
My response was, “Well, why, or what is this about?” Or, and I can’t say I really understood his intention. It’s like, sure. Well, let’s go do that.
DAN MILLER: Well, I was roommates with Larry starting in 1982 and I became involved because that’s what we did — a summer solstice bonfire on the beach that Larry took over in 1986. And he called Jerry and we were all friends in Houston.
Instead of just making the typical type of fire on the beach, he wanted to change things up due to his personal license circumstances and decided to make a sculpture with the thing with his mom and make it into a Man. And here we are today.
JERRY JAMES: Larry had attended at least once, a gathering at Baker Beach that a friend of ours used to put together just kind of very casually.
And they would go down and gather stuff literally that had washed up on the shores and make some sort of sculptures out of them and eventually burn them. So there was a precedent that proceeded our sort of recreating Attica.
At that time, I was a professional carpenter and had been for a number of years. Larry did a bunch of odds and ends kind of jobs, everything, bike messenger, kids, some gardening work.
But we made it over to that garage. I didn’t bother to bring any of my tools. I’m sure they were out on a job site somewhere.
And when we got there what I found was there was a bunch of just wood scraps and virtually no tools.
I mean, there was a hammer and a few handful of motley nails and fasteners and such, and, really no saw to speak of. There was kind of a dull keyhole saw and he did have a table saw there, but that didn’t really do us any good. So so as I talked it over with him and considered the challenge, I guess I began to understand that we want this to be a little more than just a stick figure.
So I did the best I could to try to figure out the limitations we had to actually build anything. How I could make a figure that would have some volume to it and some kind of a feel. I remember as I started to conceptualize the thing I made a rib cage that kind of had some bias. That was kind of a part of it that kind of worked. The legs were pointed out, the hips on it are kind of big and they and they are I think the last portion that I conceived and built.
There was no intention to make that figure look like a woman. And certainly there wasn’t any strong concern about the gender of it altogether, but I suppose we thought of it as a kind of every man thing, every person. But at the same with the head, I came up with the idea of making an inverted pyramid and the legs are also inverted pyramids and the rib cage kind of looks like a red cage.
I mean, if you’ve seen the images of it, it’s quite crude. Which in a way is really appealing. I mean, I ended up making pieces of wood just with my bare hands to be able to fashion the thing and then started to cobble it together as best I could with this janky hammer and a few nails and such.
And I got some little sand wrappings and made them up around the head for, like, a crown or some, I dunno, affect some hair or corns or something. And, so a couple of hours later, had completed this, is a very crude, effigy. And, later that day we loaded it on my little pickup and drove over to Baker Beach.
I had the figure horizontally and carried it down to the beach. It wasn’t really heavy, but it took a couple of us.
So there was Larry and I, and our girlfriends and our kids and Dan Miller and a couple of his friends. And that was our team. I mean, it was very much like a family picnic. It turned out there were about 12 of us. so we’re carrying the Man down the beach and there wasn’t a whole lot of people at the beach as I recall, but yeah, it felt almost a little embarrassing. People are looking at us saying, “What the fuck is that you guys have?”
DAN MILLER: Summer solstice 1986 Larry and Jerry got together and made a stick Man was about eight feet tall. They take it down to Baker beach, there’s about a dozen people. It’s what you can do today in lieu of not happening in the desert. Just get some sticks and wire them together and throw them together and go outside somewhere and Burn him with the two 12 people.
You can still do that. Just like the first Man that can do it right now.
JERRY JAMES: It was, I don’t know, eight or 10 feet tall. I have a picture of it leaning against the school bus, which kind of corroborates that. And I also have a couple of pictures of the Man standing on the beach before we burned it. And while it’s burning, in fact, one of those images I observed is on the homepage of Burning Man’s website today.
So it kind of stuck there, stayed down in the sand. I got it to stand up. Okay. it was also stuffed with burlap a bit that I obtained from a coffee house nearby. Cause I used to get the coffee beans and that comes with burlap. Then we hung around for a while smoking and joking and playing with the kids and enjoying the place in time.
The beauty of the ocean and the beach. And, eventually, once it got dark, I had brought in one, one gallon of gasoline, not kerosene or anything lesser, but very explosive gasoline dumped it all over it as best I could, since it was taller than me. And
Whether it was a match or a lighter and boom.
I mean, it just went up very vividly and energetically because it was gas after all. And it was just a gathering of sticks and burlap. So and the thing wasn’t all that big. So I don’t know. It was certainly brilliant and kind of an interesting image and experience to feel a thing go off.
As I recall it, there were only about a year, half a dozen other people up around that portion of the beach that came over quickly and joined us when they saw this thing happening. And somebody had a tambourine and, or a guitar or something and started sort of chanting singing about burn, fire, burn, something like that.
And, I don’t know, I felt sheepish about that. But at the same time, it seemed cool and colorful. So that’s a nice touch. And that was about it. That was the end of the first event, which did take place on the summer solstice 1986, was not yet named Burning Man.
Well, they certainly didn’t that night. Later on, when we decided to repeat the event annually, or at least the following year,
Not, not on that night. No, no, that was a couple of years later. We did build a little kid that we call Joey that was around the shop while we were spending many weekends, conceiving and, and building the Burning Man later in 1988, when it became much bigger.
That’s when he had Joey. I do not remember burning Joey. I mean thinking about that now. And I think at the time to me it seemed like I might be cruel or something, maybe we did. I don’t know. This is 35 years ago. I don’t remember really a dog, again maybe, but I do remember Joey.
Larry and I collaborated on the design of that one. I mean the first one was really, I think, more like me. I mean, Larry had some real limited carpentry capabilities and maybe when we built the third one together you know, he built some ornaments designed to build some little ornamental parts of it that were cool.
So I pretty much designed and built that one. The two of us collaborated on designing the second one.
And as you said, we deliberately this time and with advance notice decided to do this. So, we spent a couple of weekends crafting it and. Larry again, having worked as a gardener, I think among others sources, sort of had been around pergolas and garden yardscapes like that and introduced the idea of using these crossing members with, with angled cuts for the ends and so on.
So once we had that vernacular I was able to take that and apply it to building a root of a rudimentary figure. And so the second one was about, we spent a couple of weekends on it with Larry and some of my roommates at this big house that I was living in on Capp Street, near 24th in the Mission.
And we built it in the back. There was a back patio that was pretty large. So we were able to lay down the material and build the Man laying on its back about almost 15 feet tall this time. And the arms were fixed in place in the up position. so they didn’t move, they were held up as the Man has been built and assembled ever since.
So having spent a couple of weekends on it, we then… You know, I think of it as kind of a sequel to the first one in that it wasn’t big enough to really be a public event. So it was more like a bigger family picnic to me. I mean, we took the trouble to invite a bunch of family and friends.
I think there were about maybe 40 people there. 40 people, 15 foot tall figure. We still failed to attract the attention of any police or park Rangers or anything. So, that second bigger family picnic went without incident. And again, everybody had a lovely time and. No. I remember at the end inspiring, but, another year passed until we did it again.
I’m sure that by then we had decided we were going to do it again. Haven’t done it twice. So yeah, every time it was at Baker Beach, it was on a summer solstice and in a minute, I’ll explain why that is the case. But before then, would you like me to tell you about the third Burning Man?
The third one was the one when Larry and I had this driving concern that we make this thing really big. After some time of deliberating for over the course of several weeks, we decided, and I agreed, that we’ll make this thing about 30 feet tall, which is really a pretty significant undertaking.
That was a pretty big sculpture. Well, that’s the one that they now pretty much call the classic Man. To the top of its head, it was probably 30, maybe 32, 33 feet tall eventually. And that one was built in the garage at the time that I rented. I had a little, very small construction company that was comprised of myself and Mike Aker.
He was my construction partner. And so we rented this little one car garage over on Dubose Street, just above the Dubose park, across the street from Ralph K Davies Medical Center. That one car garage we use to keep all our construction tools and materials in.
And were you able to build Burning Man three?
Since this thing was going to be so big, we couldn’t build it in one piece and get it over to the beach.
Certainly not the way we intended to do this again, which was without asking any permission for it. So we again, Larry and I, and to some extent, Mike collaborated on designing it and, and we made it in component parts. The legs were independent in the torso, the arms and the head. And again, well, let’s see.
So over the course of many weekends over the course of several months, we worked tirelessly every weekend to design and build that thing and its parts and try the parts out some more and lay it out on the sidewalk. And we finally got to the point where we were ready to go.
The very first piece of media we ever saw was Rob Morris had a column in the San Francisco Examiner. And I think his source was, there was a sweet little old guy who would come walking his dog around and would inquire about what the heck we were building there. And we told him, and so somewhat to my alarm a couple of weeks before we intended to assemble and build the Man at the beach and burn it.
You know, he saw this little two or three line reference in Rob Morris’s column about how three guys were building this figure and intended to take it to the beach for the solstice and burn it. So I was just a little worried that that might attract the attention of some authorities or something.
So that was the very first coverage of Burning Man. When the day came, I managed to get, even though Mike and I, really built the Burning Man with Larry’s assistance on design it was going to take more than that to transport and assemble erect and, and get this thing burned.
So I did manage to get several of my carpenter buddies to pitch in and help that day. And, and the extent that was practical and helpful, got other people that were just there for the event to pitch in so we loaded all on trucks, pickup trucks, and drove these pieces across town and to Baker Beach. Of course we didn’t pull into just the parking lot, which would have been, but too conspicuous.
It took us probably a couple of hours to get everything unloaded and down to the beach and assembled and there Dan Miller had come up with this idea that we would use a big pulley to help raise it. And he packed it.
What we did was, we got a whole bunch of people up where the shoulders are and started raising the Man. And we had this big rope on it, on the front of the Man about where the solar plexus is.
And a bunch of other people were pulling on that rope. Well, or I’m sorry, the first attempt people were not pulling on the rope.
Probably one or two people were pulling on the rope. It was engaged with this block and fall. And what happened was, about the time where he got the thing, I was back at the shoulders, kind of directing, lifting that.
And we got to a certain point where it’s been lifted high enough, that it was starting to get out of our reach. So fortunately, I had just become aware of that in time to start to get people out from under there, because within seconds, that pulley failed in the, and the thing, the Burning Man came slamming down to beach and could have crushed people and really hurt them or worse. So thank God that didn’t happen.
So of course we just got the pully out of the way and took another shot at it. And this time just uses human power on a big rope to pull it up. And, my God, it was, it was kind of wobbly. The figure was sort of flopping all around to some extent, but it was strong enough to withstand the forces of us lifting it and people pulling it from the front to get it to stand.
And that was really a transcendent moment. I mean, cause the thing was big and heavy and I’d worked on it so hard and a bunch of us had and you know, we’re standing there facing the Man and the ocean beyond him and the big beach cliffs are right behind us. So it’s sort of a reinforced kind of the sense of how big and strong this thing was and what we’d done. So that was really moving.
Well, what happened was the burlap that was containing all the newspaper burned away. So it’s sort of like the skin of the figure burned away. And you could just see these huge wads of newspaper, on fire that are just falling away from the Man.
And the wind is carrying a lot of it away. Then pretty soon we were climbing up on it trying to figure out why some people were climbing on it, trying to get it to burn. And I was building a campfire around one of its feet and giving it a big, hot foot. Kind of perplexed and that’s when four policemen came walking up the beach and, and found us.
And, it was funny cause Larry and I went and tried to hide in the crowd. Like we’re going to get away with this or something.
Well, there was a guy there that had a big gong. So, the police of course accosted him, figuring he was in charge or important.
And, it’s pretty funny in the film he’s actually captured on film when he was interviewed and the police were shaking him down.
Somebody was standing there with a video camera and just captured pretty much the audio of what was going on. But the couple of the cops were being pretty nice. And a couple were trying to be hardasses, like we’d committed some real crime and,
But we negotiated that with them.
And after a bit, they agreed that they would allow us to just knock it down and finish burning it and go home. And they left us and left on our word that we would do that then. And in fact, we did. So, there we go, it became a public event: cops, media, much bigger, challenging, heavy figure. Those were the main things that happened in 88 that really make it the watershed year for Burning Man, which is what Mike and Larry and I have started to call it as we, as we built that thing that year.
Well, of course that was the year when the leg broke on the Man as we were raising it.
What had happened was in the interest of making the components of the figure more portable, I decided to make the legs into two separate lengths each. So each leg had its own two pieces and then made so there’s a joint about where the knee would be.
And we put those together at the beach and, as we lifted the thing, one of those failed, and so the finger came slamming down kind of ended up in a sitting position was the best we could do to prop it up.
And they were all cocked back back and it didn’t have a budget to hire an engineer, which is what should have happened. it didn’t, Okay. But, again, I see this when an 89 was kind of a sequel to 88 and that again, even larger crowd, probably like 300 people. There was a TV crew there.
The cops came. But by the time they got there, we got word from the police radio radios that they were on their way. So, there wasn’t anything we could do to really fix the Man at that point. So we lit the thing on fire and, and it was burning quite robustly by the time the cops got there and they didn’t even encounter us or anybody. They just walked through the crowd and left.
So yeah. So it kept growing, at that time. And really despite the failure of the sculpture being perfect, everything really worked. I mean, we succeeded in going to the beach again on the solstice and enabling hundreds of people to bring this big thing. And the sculpture was about the same size and design as it had been the year before.
And this time I failed to do an [unclear], which was I documented, I measured all the pieces and everything and made construction drawings so that when it came time to build Burning Man five, that I wouldn’t be going, Oh yeah, what size was that? And so on. So I had my plans, which of course I still have.
That was 89. That was four. So five was the one when we got to the beach and this time the cops were there almost immediately. So, I don’t quite know how, well, probably just there’s so many people — probably about 500 people showed up for it. And even when we just pulled up at the beach, There were probably already a couple hundred people.
And, so the cops and the park Rangers were there and we did a bunch of negotiating with them. And eventually they agreed to allow us to go ahead and finish assembling it. And they left on our promise that we, once we had assembled and erected it, that we would then take it back down and leave and not burn it.
And it was really hard to not burn it there. I mean, a lot of the crowd was chanting to burn it and I eventually came to feel that we should, and now Larry was insistent that we shouldn’t, and I don’t know who else was, but we didn’t finally somehow. But then what happened was we took the component parts back to a vacant lot on 11th street across the street from Slim’s nightclub.
Which is where we had assembled and built it. And, a friend of ours that has allowed us to use the space was obviously a supporter of our cause, but his partner for that property was not. And, nobody expected that we would be returning with the
Man unburned, but we did and deposited it there.
And, I came walking by a week later, just kind of out in the neighborhood to get a beer. And, I did a double take because what had been just a funky gravel parking lot, or just a lot, was now this kind of turned out commercial parking space, like there’s a nice, fresh surface and little booths where they take your money and a bunch of nice cars parked in there.
Well I wouldn’t even have to, but I did of course walk toward the back of the lot to where you’d be able to see where we’d stashed these pieces. They were nowhere in sight. So Burning Man five is still at large. If you happen to see him, please let me know. The head and the arms I had saved because they were small enough to where I could just conveniently take them up and put them in my little, I still had that one car garage for my construction business.
So those survived, but the torso and legs were gone and had to be rebuilt. And so that’s the split year, right? So that was again on the summer solstice, but now we still had this Burning Man. It was unburned. And so a few months later, the need to burn the Man corresponded to and coincided with the cacophony society’s plans to go to Black Rock, Zone Trip #4.
DAN MILLER: Each year on the beach, we would set the Man up and light it on fire. And somewhere out in the city, around the Cove from Baker beach, someone would see a fire and call the place the place would show up and they’d come and they’d say, put this out and we’d say, yeah, no problem. If they believe they’d leave and they’d be burned down and we’d clean up.
And then that would be it. But by the 1990s it had grown larger and there was a larger crowd, about a thousand people. And they intercepted bringing them in instead of coming in after it was on fire. And they said, we talked, negotiated with them and they said, okay, good, good can go ahead and set it up, but you can’t burn it.
And we did that. And, and, and subsequently that’s the, the last year we were on the beach with this, at that point, couldn’t sneak it down anymore. And we ended up moving to the Black Rock Desert, right, their second iteration of Burning Man in 1990, it happened in the black rock desert the first year.
So I’m on Zone Trip #4.
At that point we thought, Oh, that’s it, Burning Man is over. And now the Nansemond has gone and was kind of hopeless. But, I looked at the plans that Larry had done on paper and Jerry, they finalized the design and actually put it on paper. And I was working at a sound company. I had a woodshop and I looked at the plans and it was like, Oh, this is a piece of cake.
You know, I was used to building speaker cabinets for touring sound systems and, And so knocked it out and like days in the parts and then assembled it. So I ended up taking over the build once it was on paper. It wasn’t like anyone I designed decisions for needed. At that moment. There were many defined improvements that happened in those early years in the nineties.
One of the best things is we, for many years, built the Man in South San Francisco at Chris Campbell’s house in his backyard. And it was just a wonderful time, just there was our crew for years.
CHRIS CAMPBELL: Well, let’s see, I got involved through my friend, Carson [unclear], and he drug us out to the desert and I think 91 or 9w was actually the first year. And me and some friends that were in a band. And we just went out there and I had no clue what we were in for except, the desert was fucking awesome, obviously.
And then Larry called me the next year around June or something. If I wanted to jump in on the build. And I said, sure, why not?
You know, I told them my skills and such. And then he said, great. And then he called back an hour later and he’s like, you wouldn’t know someplace we could build would ya?
We ended up building in my front yard because it didn’t fit through the side gate. All over the front yard, all over the backyard, it was a hoot and the neighbors came over and they wondered what the hell was going on. [unclear] lane, South San Francisco, 104 right there, up on the Hill. People showed up that first morning and, and I didn’t know any of them. So all of a sudden my house was full of these. What do you call it? Artistic types. Dan Miller was the first, he actually crawled into my house and broke in for me cause I was out getting pastries for the crew.
But yeah, the first build for me was 93 in South city and yeah, it was pretty much every year after that until 99.
The core build crew was Jerry, Dan, Dale. And, I was sort of on hand to make sure nobody cut their fingers and toes and blasted themselves with nailers and staplers. It was fun doing it. I got to use all my tools. That’s always fun on a single project.
And you know, working out of your garage is easy too.
Cause you just walk over and grab what you need. But I think the biggest fun was all of the people that came out to help dozens and dozens and dozens over the years. And they all were having a great time. It’s like, you couldn’t drink too much beer and smoke too much dope when you’re doing this kind of thing.
I think 94 was the first year I actually took over the head. And the Shoji face was basically he’d stack the three by or three quarter by three quarters. And I actually put a lap joint on him, so it was flush and it looked more like a Shoji screen. And then
I’m just working on innovations from there. So 97 was when we added the jawline and the, the, the rib cage, the hoops on the torso, which were elliptical, which was quite a challenge.
it was plywood. You know, we were stacking up, three ply for the rings on the legs and the arms and cutting circles out of that.
And then for the hoops, the ribs, I mean, you had to take the cut, any lips that traced the depth front to back and the width side to side and I’m in there were what, six, seven ribs, I think significantly less than the rest of us, but good enough for them.
Perfect. Yeah. And, yeah, you just trace the ellipse and make your points and you’d take a string and some nails and you drag the string around with a pencil in it, but those had to be assembled, glued together, and sanded out.
It was quite a lot of work. But when it all came together, it definitely, finished, finished the sculpture as it were. And then of course the jawline on the head was something I’d been looking at and trying to fabricate in my head. And then Larry finally let me do it. But, it took some, took some convincing to get him to see that, that was the future.
And, it really just sort of blended together at that point. And that was that.
Yeah. The face. The Man’s head had a single face. Cause there weren’t that many folks out there. And everybody’s stood looking at the guy, nobody stands behind someone looking at them usually.
If you’re standing there before a piece of work, you’re standing in front of it. So yeah, the Man didn’t have a back, he didn’t even have a hairpiece back there. You know, it was just bald as the day he was born. But, yeah, later I think 94 or 95 was a two faced man where both sides had Shoji.
And that was mostly because the crowd was getting bigger and, and scarier.
There were pieces that went front to back and there were pieces that went side to side, but nothing to tie them all together and give you the impression that there was a torso, but it definitely looked trellis-like, so the chevrons were these little, triangular pieces. Well, they were basically little hips, roof, hips rafters.
If you will, on the flat that sat on top of the, the Man’s chest pieces that went front and back, I guess that’s a sagittal plane, or transfer shot. I don’t know. But anyway, they were, they were in the front and then the two faced Man there, then they were on the back too. And then again in 97, we put the ribs on, but the chevrons just somehow never left the Man that year.
Larry was, I’m not sure. I’m not sure I want to let those go and, and he ended up seeing it once it was all assembled that they were sort of redundant, but a hack, they were there. It’s something else to burn.
Nah, the orbicular effect was… it started as a whim too. You know, we were doing a lot of beach burns in the day down at Fort Funston and we’d get down to the beach and then drag all of our stuff south down into the dune.
So we didn’t get hassled by the Man so much, the other man. But, the orbicular effect came to being because I wanted to get a burn pile down the beach without actually carrying the material. So I demoed a fence somewhere and I had piles and piles of old redwood and stuff. So I split those and turned them into a huge sphere that was about six foot in diameter.
And tied it down to my trailer and drove it down to the beach for our, one of our burns and, and rolled it down the beach a couple of hundred yards. And it pretty much held together all the way down, all the way to the end. And we basically made a small fire on the beach and rolled it onto the small fire.
And, fascinating watching the fire just lick up through the, the, the interior structure is sort of like a dandelion with a bunch of radials that come out. So the fire looking up through the radials was pretty awesome, and then it burned big and huge and tall, and we all backed up a lot cause it was bloody hot.
And then at the same time, the tide was coming in. that night, and just burned all the way down to its ashes. It was there in a pile of embers and just sitting there and big. Swell came in and basically wrapped up, picked up the fire, wrapped it in its little foamy tendrils, and slate back out to the sea with it.
And by the time it hit the back of the surf line, it was completely extinguished and just a steamy little memory it was fucking cool. . And then 97, the Walapai year, I built a, I was a seven or eight footer and I’d spent the week up there, just sort of trolling around and countryside looking for old ranch barns and, and, and ranches and collapsed buildings and shacks, and just basically salvaging a hundred year old wood out of the Nevada desert. And assembling a sphere there on Hualapai which we burned after the event.
And then next year Larry was like, okay, cause I’d been talking to him about art at the corners instead of straw bales. So I guess the orbicular effect got to be that. And, the first year or 98, those things went up, they were six foot diameter.
Those actually went off. Perfectly. And ironically, the Man went off prematurely because I guess Blazer or Flame or whatever his name is, the guy on fire ran up onto the platform and did a little jig under the Man and set the fuse off on one of the legs.
And, and that took off over him and he ran this down the stairs and they put them out. But the Man, literally it took about five seconds, maybe 10 seconds of pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, and then he just exploded. you know, the torso and head were just an entire ball of flash white, brilliant. And everybody’s blown away.
Cause that’s not how it was supposed to work. And then Larry Scott into the microphone light, this veers light, the damn spheres. So those things went off. And, that was actually pretty spectacular because they all got to go off at the same time. And
I think I. According to plan, the spheres were supposed to go first and sort of lull everybody into peace before the Man went off.
But the next year we tried to get that right, 99, but one of the spheres didn’t go off and those fears were eight feet in diameter and topped out at 24 feet tall. So there’s a, there’s a weird geometry to the orbicular effect to this. The spheres being a feminine symbolism, the triangle that they, the tripod that they stood upon, represented unity because you can have the whole without a third.
And, and they were put in a square and it’s on a, on a square and that is the masculine. So there was kind of like all, all the geometric symbolism was there, but nobody else seemed to figure that out.
And I was like, well, let’s put a neon smiley in the Man to add some levity like levity it’s like people are getting too hardcore telco, not the most positive thing you want to go spout. And about in the middle of Bedlam.
Smiley was a two foot diameter neon. Smiley face yellow, of course, and a brilliant, brilliant, fabrication. And, John basically snuck it into the head. You know during his neon installation.
The Man was yellow and red that year. It had two colors and the smiley didn’t get switched on in the head. It was left off. And then I think one night might’ve been Saturday. Friday before John switched it on around midnight briefly and switched it off.
You know, that was it. That was the intent. Smiley was kind of an ephemeral thing just like, did we see that right? Did I, did that really happen? So anyway, word got out as it does out there. And, the next morning, Larry standing out there behind the Man waiting for the sun to come up behind it.
And he’s got Dan standing there and we’re all kind of standing around, like, what are you waiting for? I didn’t, I was trying to get them out of there, but. Sure enough, the sun got up high enough to where you could see the shadow of smiley on the actual the screen the face of the Man. And he’s like, “Get that goddamn thing out of my man.”
And so we lowered the Man and Dan went in there and, and dutifully removed it.
GOATT: It’s wonderful. It’s absolutely wonderful. When I was in, when I first started in DPW, I always wanted to be on the Man built team. Obviously when you look at a lot of the art and the infrastructure that is provided both by Burning Man via DPW and by theme camps and artists and then you look at the fulcrum or the city standing there at the apex is this beautiful Man that is just looks incredibly complex, with an amazing amount of detail, given to his construction. I’ve always been absolutely amazed by it. And in terms of complex or difficult to get, I don’t think it’s very difficult to build it all. I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful process that is nuanced. It’s different than say, framing Center Camp, even framing the Man Base. It’s more like furniture building and cabinetry. and I love it. I love that the center of the city is doted over so much. and so much consideration and craftsmanship is folded into it year after year.
KIMBA: So every year we hold a couple of slots for what we call rockstar volunteers from other departments where we get the chance to offer them. And they are usually very excited to, to come and partake for a year or sometimes they join the crew more permanently.
It’s an all volunteer week, which is an important tenant in my mind too. the spirit of the event is that that nobody is paid for their time doing, the Man, even though they might be paid for the time that they’re building the Man Pavilion and other aspects of a Burning Man,
One of my favorite things that happens during the Man build as an, and I’m always in a position where I get to stand back and watch it happen a bit more since I’m not as hands on. But one of the best things that happens in my mind is that we have people of all walks of life. We have people who are super skilled craftsmen, excellent woodworkers.
And then we have folks that I think of Muse, for example, who came to Man Krew because of a ton of work she had done for
DMV, the department of mutant vehicles. And I don’t think she would think of herself as a woodworker, but yet she was an integral part of the team for years. And I’m sure she learned quite a bit.
And that’s one of the things that we do is we intentionally set the Man build such that. It’s in small steps that people can learn quickly. And then it’s repetitive. There’s a lot of things that you do over and over again you learn to use a jigsaw and then man, there’s a lot of big signs and then learn to use a router.
And then there’s tons of opportunity to learn throughout. I don’t know if that’s the correct verb. It might be routing or using a router, but anyway, there’s a lot of opportunity to do that. And then there’s the thing that gives people an opportunity to be creative. So there’s the plan that we’re all building too, and we know what that’s going to look like.
And then there’s opportunities for people to get creative and to do things with wood that maybe woodworkers haven’t thought of because they don’t, that’s not how they would normally tackle it. But someone who doesn’t have experience in a wood shop, And maybe has experience with different kinds of craft might look at wood and, and use it in a way that we were not expecting.
GOATT: So I’ve only really had the chance in the last couple of years to get access to the building plans.
And what’s so beautiful about the building plans themselves. It’s like getting this kind of archaic religious text or something from like, Raiders of the Lost Arc. I mean, the fact that they’ve gone through so many iterations that getting a hand, getting a handle on these, these plans themselves is actually quite interesting.
And the process is relatively simple. We have detailed plans that have gone through a bunch of iterations. So what’s beautiful about them is that there’s a kind of humanity, a living essence to the Man himself, because he’s not set up in a realm of stasis, if you will. He’s not the same person year after year after year, just simply, With connection to the building plants themselves.
So every time we meet in the warehouse, when we get in there we have a crew of like anywhere from 10 to 20 people that come in and build a Man and we set out the building plans already, understanding that there’s a living essence to this simply by the plans.
And then we set out to make the bits. We set up a crew with routers and jigsaws to start cutting out the rings and the ribs of the Man. Another set of crew. We dial out to build out the bones, the arms and the legs, each iteration, each piece of the Man is doted over to like such a beautiful scale of attention that it’s unreal.
You know, like the, for instance, the ribs and the rings, the rings and the Mount of perfect circles where they’re, they’re cut out with router jigs there, routed with an, with an edge router they’re sanded there. It’s a very touchable process. and then once all the bits and pieces of the Man are cut out and sanded and oiled, then we set to task to assemble the Man, which again is just amazing.
The attention to detail that goes into it. So at the end you have what I call a touchable or approachable art at Burning Man. With all due respect to every builder out there, we’re building artists and DPW and, in particular, have such a limited amount of time to produce, functioning architecture out there.
And the artists have limited funds and limited time to build, Approachable art that is essentially destroyed at the end of the event. And the Man build is this thing in the middle, that at the end, it’s almost kind of sad to burn it because it is beautiful. It’s finished. It’s touchable, if that makes sense.
And you can, the closer you get to the Man, the narrative is never, never written. Oh, the attention to detail, the tightness of the scenes, for instance, the smoothness of the word, the intricate, and symmetry of the pieces and the cuts and how they fit together. It’s pretty inspiring.
As a builder I speak for all buildings. When we approach something like the Man or a building, we see it as a symphony of parts. And it’s very easy to break away those parts. We see the gestalt of it and how complex.
The finished product looks, but it’s actually a pretty straightforward process, a process for building the head, the whole entire man, the components, whether it’s the rings of the legs, the legs themselves, if it’s the ribs, or the chest itself and the arms and particularly the head, the it’s, all these processes are simplified by employing jigs.
So if you look at the Man’s head, he’s got a face grid. Which we use, I believe Oak for the grid — nice, beautiful hardwood. And all those are added to make a seamless face to it. One of the things I wished is that Burners could actually get a chance to get a close look at the head itself and just see like it’s built like furniture. It’s beautiful, but even the frame of the head, which we use clear cedar for, is built with G eggs and the entire person. Yes. We either employ routers or electric tools, but the frame itself is actually built using a Japanese saw.
There’s no other way to do it. I mean, I guess we can do a router two, but the router chances to destroy some of the lumber because it’s such a soft wood.
In the world of building, when you’re framing, you deal with just broad douglas fir studs. Whatever the Man is has nothing at all in common with rough framing. The Man has an immense amount in common with fine woodworking and finished carpentry in furniture building.
And so we take great care on what kind of material we’re ordering. You know, everything from… rather than getting number two, we try to get vertical grain, really nice lumber. Yeah. We treat everything before it even gets cut which means we’re sending off all the blemishes, we’re cutting off all the knots.
You know, there’s an amazing amount of tension that goes into just simply routing the edges. But the idea is to spend a day or two. Cleaning up the entire lumber so that when we walk into the warehouse the next day, the ingredients, if you will, for the Man have been cleansed and rarefied, and it’s spectacular.
I think it sets a particular mindset for the builders in there, that we’re dealing with something hallowed, if you will, or, or sacred, whatever that might mean. It’s endearing. Yeah, but we do take a great amount of care in making sure that everything comes to us clean. Before we start cutting into it.
I’m still relatively new at this. A lot of mates of mates with a lot of the crew. I’m just speaking from the heart. One of my favorite things is that this crew is somewhat timeless. At least in my experience at Burning Man, I’ve always thought there’s a lot of people on the Man build crew that have been there since before I started. So some of the things that I find romantic about the Man build crew itself is their dedication to it. that they volunteer. They come out well. They say they give up a week of their year, year after year to come out. They are kind of like the secret holders that collectively all know the approaches and the tricks to how to build the Man.
The enthusiasm in that warehouse is palpable, during that week that we’re building it. the, the stories that everyone tells, the, the processes, there’s these things about the Man that I don’t think a lot of, Burners get an, get a real connection with. And that is that year after year, the center of the city always seems to look the same, but each man is remarkably different.
And there are these traditions that are carried. Quietly and not secretly because they’re exposed to the rest of the city. but the Man every year has a heart. And that heart changes from year to year to year, right in the center of his chest, or just left a center, by his arm, is, A heart, a contraption that is generally offered to the newest person on the crew.
And they set out in addition to building the Man to fabricate that heart on their own and to add a little personality to it. And that’s incredible. And then the other thing that is amazing, that is particular to the crew itself, as opposed to say the building plans is that. The chest itself, the ornament, is particular to the theme year after year after year.
And it’s the crew that collectively gets together and decides what they want to do to prepare to personalize the Man. And that allows everybody to be creative to allow themselves the potential and the opportunity to be an artist inside the confines of building this man. And it’s wonderful. And I love the serendipitousness of a lot of this. Like last year, it was a really special year for me and the crew because the theme was metamorphosis and there were a lot of beautiful serendipitous elements that went into the design and we all talked about it. And the crew decided that what they wanted to do was, incorporate, serpents a graphic, Simple in religious theory, Tor for transportation snakes, molt it was the snake, which was like the extension of God in the old Testament that convinced Eve to snack off the Apple.
So they decided to use snakes and then, and it just gradually morphed into, there was an egg involved and then how the snakes were reins were really evocative of feminine and masculine symbolism. And then our project manager was pregnant and. We’re looking at all of this all quite by accident. And at the end may be one of the most beautiful, most stunning plates where the two snakes were intertwined on the chest.
And we had a couple of crew members that, set to task and making the snakes and started employing angle grinders to make the scales. And I’ve been building for 23 years and I saw them do that for the first time and my mind was blown by them. The trick and the craftsmanship of doing that and just their absolute enthusiasm to go way above the market.
Just quick of assembling this very complex thing, but adding this, these new elements, another crew member fabricated an egg and then employed somebody from outside the, or, the, the band. Manville crew to actually make the egg out of ceramic, you know? And then that came back and then artifacts were hidden inside the egg.
And then we built that thing. We lifted it up and it was just, Oh, it says you get goose. I get goosebumps thinking about that, you know? And then once we put the Man up, A lot of that kind of disappears behind the burlap sacks and the neon. And just the scale of the event itself on the Man’s 40 feet above you, you lose a lot of that detail. But that loss of detail didn’t condition the crew to care any less about the process itself. And I just, I was beside myself with the craftsmanship and the dedication.
That was absolutely wonderful.
So the ornament, I call it a radio, but every build has its own particular language. Now that I think is kind of funny. but the radio that, if every year the Man. And it’s BeltLine has what looks like rays of the sun radiating out on, on, on a half circle of semicircle. and after the crew had decided that what they wanted to do was make the chest snakes.
Ben Zero, one of the Man Krews longstanding crew members, took it upon himself to augment the radio itself and turn them into snakes. And his approach was amazing. None of these people, none of the crew. Once we had the, the concept really needed to collaborate any further. We knew who was going to do it, and we just kind of let them run with it and Ben Xero ran with it in his own way and wound up making these beautiful snakes that he decided.
He just took a piece of two by six and sketched out snakes and cut them out on a jigsaw and then took an angle grinder with a sanding disc and curved them. And the product at the end was just surreal. It was beautiful. and it’s that kind of enthusiasm.
There’s a lot of opportunity in the building world and even in professional building and DPW, and even in some, maybe some of the art processes out on the playa where individuals don’t get a chance to shine on their own and kind of put their own little fingerprint into it.
And I think that’s one of the most endearing qualities of being able to get together with the people on man build is because there is that opportunity for, for a collective consensus to, to shape, and make a new the Man year after year, but also for, for, individuals in the crew to kind of press their fingerprint into it at the support of the entire crew, it’s, it’s a magic place for 10 days. That’s beautiful.
DAN MILLER: Yeah, I think just like any project you do out in the desert the camaraderie that happens with all the people, you, you work with it it’s really wonderful. I recommend it to anybody. That’s really the most fun way to do Burning Man is to do a project you’ve worked for whatever days of months, a week, month, year before with your community.
And then you go out to this place and you, like, you have to deal with the elements, then you’re way away from anything. You know, there’s no hardware store. There’s nothing the shade you bring and, and the comradery is this. That’s the best thing. So now the crew is great. You know, the camaraderie of the crew is just always the best thing.
And then the connections make the bonding over working together in adverse conditions. So doing a project where you’re working in your home community or with people around wherever everybody contributing around wherever and, and then coming together in the desert to aim for the completion of those wonderful things.
KIMBA: I was thinking about something that Larry had talked about in an interview that I had listened to. And I was thinking that it was a similar experience for me, which is, he was saying that once they started pulling the Man up with a rope in the desert, he never jumped on that rope and he would always stand back and watch people.
And at that time, I think these are just kind of random participants who happened to be around and they would grab people and say, “Hey, help us pull this man up.” And watching people do that was a treat for him. And I think as I’ve had an opportunity to grab people and say, “Like, go pull, we’re going to test the arms. Now, go pull those up.” Or “It’s time to lift the Man. you know, can, you can participate in this way?” I think those are some moments that stand out to me to have those experiences and feel close to him in that way.
STUART: . All right, Andie, let’s do this. Right. And that’s about it for this episode of Burning Man Live. Thanks to all of our wonderful guests, all of these people who put so much blood, sweat and toil into building Burning Man Live. Yeah. As you may know, a production of the Philosophical center of Burning Man Project, our web address is burningman.org/news/live.
Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow us on all the socials@burningmanlive. Big big appreciations to our technical producer and story editor, Michael Vav, our producers, Andie Grace and Logan Mirto, our promotions manager, the elusive Darryl van Ray and our super friends, Tanner Boeger, Devin from the Internet, Jay Kanizzle.
That’s all for now. Thanks Larry.