When I first attended Burning Man in 2019, making a quilt about the experience was the last thing on my mind. Neither loud music nor camping are among the things that bring me joy, so Burning Man was never on my bucket list.
But when my dear high school friend John Paul asked me to go with him, I couldn’t say, “No.” A veteran Burner, John lives in California and said we could stay together in his Airstream trailer, and he would pack the RV and his truck with all the food, water, and supplies we needed, including bikes.
We had both lost our husbands, and I was in a mood to try scary things. So, off I went.
I had most of the standard views about Burning Man. I thought it was a raucous music festival in the Nevada desert with lots of drugs and nudity. Almost every word of that description is true except it isn’t a festival: Burners prefer to call it a community. Granted, there are quite a few “sound camps” where DJs blast electronic music constantly. But to my delight, I had one of the richest, deepest experiences of my life there and learned that you can run an ultramarathon or go hear an ephemeral symphony orchestra that only performs at Burning Man.
The absolute coolest things you can experience are the square miles filled with extraordinary art. There are hundreds of artworks on display, some of them several stories tall, and most are meant to be touched, climbed, written upon, or otherwise engaged with. Some spout fire (best not to climb those).
As a long-time quilter, I reached for fabric right away. But that’s because I decided one contribution I could make to my Burning Man camp was a flag. I found some skull fabric with the words “Carpe Noctem” (seize the night) and then added loads more skeleton and skull fabric and stitched it together. There is a tradition of people earning their Burner nickname by their behaviors and actions, so I quickly became “Stitches.”
I also took scraps of neutral fabric with me because I wanted a project that would help me engage with the strangers I met on the playa (a flat dry lake bed that can fill with water in the winter). I kept these in a small embroidered bag along with black fabric markers. The 2019 theme for Burning Man was Metamorphosis, so I would ask someone who looked interesting to tell me a story of personal metamorphosis, and then, I’d write down key words to describe it on the fabric. I saved these scraps without any idea of what they’d become later. Because I didn’t want to take something without giving back, I would offer each person one of the temporary tattoos that I also carried, featuring words like “NOW” and “POSSIBILITIES.”
As John and I rode our bikes around the playa over the days and nights, looking for cool art and sampling the copious free gifts (food, drink, Burner outfits, yoga classes, a burlesque show, bike repair and on and on) at the various themed camps, I was astonished to discover that one of the official works of art consisted of three quilts strung up in a row on metal wires. Made mostly of small scraps of batik fabrics, the quilt progression went from black and dark colors toward a middle quilt with a big streak of white, toward a final quilt, bursting with bright colors, though still edged in black. When I got home from the burn, I was able to track down the artwork’s maker, Michelle Meyer Tarantino of Brentwood, California, who told me she learned how to quilt by watching Jenny Doan videos on YouTube.
Michelle told me that the quilts were a depiction of “my journey through depression,” and that she decided to do the project even though she got turned down for a grant from the Burning Man Organization. I wondered how she made quilts that could withstand winds of up to 60 miles per hour coupled with frequent dust storms, and she explained that “each quilt weighed about 30 pounds because I used moving blankets as the batting.”
It may sound like a crazy thing to do, but Burning Man openly encourages personal creativity and risk-taking. “Honestly, I knew it was the most accepting place I could ever display something,” Michelle said. “So I knew I would be fine.”
It was probably seeing quilts on the playa that planted the seed: why not take the scraps of fabric cataloging metamorphosis stories, the clothing I wore, and fabric left from the flag and use them to make a Burning Man memento quilt?
In the center, I embroidered the theme “METAMORPHOSIS” in black thread on a white background. A lot of the background fabric was pieced from the neutral fabrics I didn’t use for my metamorphosis story project. I found a great photograph by Mark Nixon of the man burning that year and printed it on fabric. Using Google maps, I embroidered an aerial view of the temporary town of 80,000 people.
Some inner borders were patched from the kerchiefs John and I wore to keep dust out of our noses and mouths: his was black, and mine was red. Of course, I stitched down the story patches I brought back, as well as the white, fingerless, lace gloves I wore the night of the big burn. My paper ticket is stitched to the top, along with a tarot card with a Shakespeare verse on the back from a theme camp called The Burning Globe, a camp for theater people.
Finally, I attached all 10 of the Burning Man Principles that permeate the event, either embroidered or stenciled. Principles such as radical self-expression, immediacy, and civic responsibility affect the experience profoundly. De-Commodification means the only thing for sale on the playa are bags of ice. Especially without strong WiFi, Burning Man is an ad-free zone where you mostly use your phone to take photos: the focus and remoteness make every experience and conversation more vivid.
This quilt encapsulates not just what I saw and experienced at my first burn but how I felt about it. I felt changed. I had a metamorphosis.
Burning Man was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19, but I happily returned to the dust in 2022. It was miserably hot, and my bike broke repeatedly; however, it was another remarkable experience, partly because I volunteered to work with the art and artists through a program called the ARTery. My ride and other arrangements fell through this year, so I missed Mud Man (as some have taken to call it due to the dramatic rainfall), but I fervently hope to return to the playa in 2024.
Want to know more about Burning Man? You can read a blog post I wrote shortly after that first burn in 2019 here. On October 25, I’ll be giving a Textile Talk lecture on Zoom about the Textiles of Burning Man. It is free to anyone who registers through the International Quilt Museum.