What started in 1986, with maybe a dozen people torching a 9-foot effigy at the beach, has grown into a year-round $30 million-a-year enterprise with 70 full-time employees and satellite art events everywhere.
SAN FRANCISCO — Larry Harvey, whose whimsical decision to erect a giant wooden figure and then burn it to the ground led to the popular, long-running counterculture celebration known as “Burning Man,” has died. He was 70.
Mr. Harvey, known for wearing a felt Stetson and smoking Marlboros, died Saturday at a hospital in San Francisco, surrounded by relatives, Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell said.
Mr. Harvey, who last appeared in public March 29 at the opening of a Burning Man art exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., died after suffering a massive stroke April 4.
“We resolutely held out for a miracle,’’ Goodell said. “If there was anyone tenacious, strong-willed and stubborn enough to come back from this challenge, it was Larry.’’
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Longtime friend Stuart Mangrum posted on the organization’s website that Mr. Harvey did not believe in “any sort of existence” after death.
“Now that he’s gone, let’s take the liberty of contradicting him, and keep his memory alive in our hearts, our thoughts, and our actions,” Mangrum wrote. “As he would have wished it, let us always Burn the Man.”
Burning Man takes place annually the week before Labor Day in Northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The weeklong festival attracts some 70,000 people who pay from $425 to $1,200 a ticket to travel to a dry lake bed 100 miles east of Reno, where temperatures can routinely reach 100 degrees during the summer.
There they must carry in their own food, build their own makeshift community and engage in whatever interests them. On the gathering’s penultimate day, the giant effigy — or Man as it is known — is set ablaze during a raucous, joyful celebration.
Friends and family toasted Mr. Harvey on Saturday as a visionary, a lover of words and books, a mentor and instigator who challenged others to look at the world in new ways. “Burners,” as they’re called, left comments on the organization’s website thanking him for inspiring them as artists and for creating a community.
“Thanks for everything. (No, really, pretty much everything in my life right now is a result of Burning Man.),” read one post.
An “esoteric mix of pagan fire ritual and sci-fi Dada circus where some paint their bodies, bang drums, dance naked and wear costumes that would draw stares in a Mardi Gras parade,” is how The Associated Press once described the gathering.
While tickets now sell out immediately, Mr. Harvey described in a 2007 interview how he had much more modest intentions when he launched Burning Man on San Francisco’s Baker Beach one summer day in 1986.
“I called a friend and said, ‘Let’s go to the beach and burn a man,’ ” he told the website Green Living. “And he said, ‘Can you say that again?’ And I did and we did it.”
It wasn’t until afterward, Harvey recalled, that he had the epiphany that led to Burning Man.
Within a few years, the event had outgrown Baker Beach and moved to the desert.
While Mr. Harvey would speak frequently about Burning Man in the years that followed, he would reveal little about himself and it was often hard to discern truth from fiction.
He believed he was conceived in the back of a Chevrolet by parents who abandoned him soon after his birth, he once told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
His brother, Stewart Harvey, said in a post Saturday that the two were adopted by farmers “Shorty” and Katherine Harvey and grew up outside of Portland, Oregon. The brothers, who were not related by blood, were extremely close.
Mr. Harvey served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, stationed in Germany doing clerical work. After his discharge, he briefly attended Portland State University on the GI Bill before moving to San Francisco in the 1970s.
After that first fire in 1986, Burning Man flourished as Mr. Harvey meticulously oversaw its every detail from the various communities that would spring up overnight to its annual arts theme to the beautifully crafted temple that accompanies Burning Man and is also burned.
He eventually formed a limited liability corporation to put on Burning Man, converting it in 2013 to a nonprofit with 70 full-time employees and a budget of $30 million. It is now a year-round enterprise with satellite art events everywhere. He was president of its board and “chief philosophic officer.”
Although known for retaining its joyful celebrative atmosphere as it grew from a small gathering to one of gigantic proportions, Burning Man occasionally had its problems.
In 2017, a man ran into Burning Man’s flames, suffered burns over almost all of his body and died. In 1996, three people were injured when a drunken driver ran over their tent. That same year a man was killed when his motorcycle collided with a van carrying people to the festival.
In 2007, a prankster set fire to Burning Man four days early and it had to be frantically rebuilt while the man was charged with arson.
After the 1996 troubles, Mr. Harvey had a falling out with John Law, who had co-founded Burning Man with him and who sued to have its trademark placed in the public domain. They settled out of court and Mr. Harvey retained control.
“We don’t use the trademark to market anything. It’s our identity,” said Mr. Harvey, who often spoke against the commodification of popular culture.
He is survived by his son, Tristan Harvey; brother Stewart; and nephew Bryan Harvey.