Burning Woman: Art and Initiation in Hot, Dry Places

Following is a profile essay written in June 2011 for my English 1A class.


The elfin, middle-aged woman is curled into a fetal ball on the ground, her T-shirt pulled over her head to protect her eyes and face while a ferocious sandstorm painfully scours her slender limbs.  It’s the first hour of Sharon Armstrong’s first time attending Burning Man, the social and artistic experiment held each August in an immense desert valley in Nevada.  The scorching, utterly flat plain of the valley is known as “the playa.” Today, apparently, the playa wants to play rough.

Sharon Armstrong small portrait“I’d just arrived,” Sharon Armstrong, local artist, clinical psychologist and community activist remembers.  “I walked out on the playa just to kinda see what in the world is this?  What am I here for?  A terrible sandstorm blew up and it was hotter than hell.  I think I had on some cutoffs and a T-shirt.  I felt like my skin was being sandblasted.”  Her eyes widen behind her silver-rimmed glasses, marveling at the memory,  “I could see nothing.  I could remember reading something in their survival manual that, if you can’t get to a safe place, close your eyes and get down.  So I just hit the ground, put my shirt up over my head and waited.”

The few people passing by in the storm were far more sensibly outfitted than she for life in Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis built by Burning Man attendees.  Wearing protective clothing and eye goggles, a few of them checked on Sharon’s condition before fading into the hammering, sand-saturated gale.  Radical self-reliance is a key principle at Burning Man, but so is interdependence and community.  “One guy stopped, and I knew it was a guy from his voice, and he said, ‘Are you okay?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’  He took off his shirt, put it over me and rode off.  I will never know who it was.”

Since that first experience five years ago, Sharon has returned to Burning Man annually.  Each year, she has made a sculptural installation, one conceived and executed to fit that year’s Burning Man theme.  Normally, Sharon waits till the theme is announced to work on her piece for the event.

This year is different.  Sharon knew what this year’s installation would be before the Burning Man crew made their theme public.  An experience, even more dramatic than her sandblasting on the playa that first year, had taken place in another desert the previous summer.  The experience changed her utterly and, for Sharon, made the subject of her next installation a foregone conclusion.

“It was huge,” Sharon says of the life-altering impact of the thirteen-day, guided workshop held in the heat-shimmering, surreally-sculpted landscape of the Joshua Tree wilderness in Southern California.  For two weeks, with only a short, one-day break, Sharon and the other participants worked through a rigorous program exploring a demanding model of energy work.  She describes the intensity—physical, emotional and spiritual—of her time learning to open blocked energy in the body.

“It’s not massage.  It’s a dance between the practitioner and the receiver,” Sharon explains, but she doesn’t have many words to corral the experience.  And she doesn’t want to.  Asked to describe the experience and its effects more definitively, she answers firmly and unselfconsciously, “I don’t know.”  The experience and its repercussions in her life are only beginning to unfold, and she prefers not to claim she understands.  “Less knowing and more trusting,” she says, then amending, “Trusting isn’t the best word.  Just being alive in the present moment.”

Two weeks before going to Joshua Tree, Sharon had read about the concept of initiation in indigenous cultures, and was deeply moved by the idea’s wisdom and usefulness.  Sharon has identified her experience in the Joshua Tree desert as a powerful initiation, one that, over a year later, she is still processing and integrating into her life and sense of self.

“There are three stages of initiation,” Sharon explains, a silver ring flashing as she counts them off on her fingers.  “Separation, ordeal, and homecoming.”  The series of hoops in her ears is also silver, and join with her silver glasses, a tiny stud glinting in one nostril, and her wild cloud of graying hair to form a pleasing, silvered whole.  “As a psychologist, I see it as such an elegant model for healing.  And not healing in the western sense of take a pill and you’ll feel better, or do this behavioral intervention and you’ll feel better.  It’s really a model for the deep healing that can happen, whatever the modality.”

Sharon notes that western cultures lack a formal set of big, risky rituals to mark important life transitions and nurture our journey to becoming fully conscious human beings—sometimes through brushes with danger and even mortality.  For Sharon, a tiny, wiry woman making art on an enormous scale, going into the creative wilderness to conceive a piece of art, then struggling passionately with all her diminutive might to bring the piece into physical being, and finally completing and sharing the finished art with the world is in itself an initiation process.  Her installation for this year’s Burning Man is a case in point.

The three, six-foot-tall figures of the sculpture barely fit in Sharon’s crowded studio, though as of yet they are only one-third scale models.  The evolutionary stages of the installation are in evidence all around.  On one wall is pinned an enchanting, five-foot-long drawing of one of the “dust dancers,” as Sharon terms the swirling female figures that make up one of the three pieces of the sculpture.  The drawing is expressed in the simplest of curves and with minimal detail, but the overall shape is of swirling, urgent, utterly feminine energy and motion.  On the table is a six-inch, free-standing, three-dimensional construction of several paper dust dancers.  Sharon calls these small, paper test sculptures “three-D drawings.”  They are Sharon’s initial experiment to discover how the flat medium of the sketched figures will function when enlarged and transferred to the curved surfaces of her inventory of huge, industrial paperboard, cylindrical building forms that she will use to fabricate the final sculptures.  The little figure is like a drinking glass stuffed with jubilant paper-dolls curled into semi-cylindrical shapes.  On the studio’s small, open floor space stands the full-color, six-foot version of the dust dancer piece along with its two companion pieces.  On the four-by-ten foot table in the middle of the studio lie sheets of clear, heavy plastic.  Grids at full scale have been marked on on the plastic sheets to facilitate the transfer of the designs onto the industrial cylinders.  A skill saw sits on the table, authoritatively anchoring one of the gridded plastic sheets, on which is sketched the fierce-looking head of a bird.

Sharon, at sixty-six possessed of a vibrant, elf-dancer physicality, slips through the narrow gaps between the six-foot models with practiced, light-footed grace.  She describes the laborious process of creating what will ultimately be a sixteen-foot dust dancer piece in tans and russets, a sixteen-foot-tall dolphin piece, gracefully leaping in bluish ocean hues, and a twenty-foot-tall phoenix, wings exploding up toward flight in a rainbow of fiery colors.  Each piece will sit in the center of one of three conjoined labyrinths she will construct on the playa this August.  Air, water, and fire.  “And the playa will be earth,” she says, “when the installation is in place.”

Sharon calls the piece, born from her Joshua Tree experience, “Initiation.”  She seems tickled but not terribly surprised that, shortly after she conceived the piece and settled on its name, the Burning Man staff announced their theme: Rites of Passage.

“Oh, hah!  I love synchronicities,” her head, topped with its cloud of salt-and-pepper curls apparently not subject to the laws of gravity, rocks back with pleasure.  “To me it’s just what we call Spirit playing with us.  It’s a mutual dance.”

Part ageless faerie dancer, herself, and part graying wise-woman, Sharon is a petite package of passion vibrating with intelligent, creative drive.  Though she is only partway through her ordeal of bringing the ambitious “Initiation” installation into being, one is left with little doubt that her vision will be realized, another initiation brought full circle from separation, through ordeal, and finally to homecoming.

For Sharon, the stages of initiation are also embodied in Burning Man itself.  Her mouth stretches into a grin, considering this parallel.  “Oh yeah, it’s that,” her deep chuckle bubbles heartily.  “It’s the separation from ordinary life.  The ordeal is getting there and being there.  And Burning Man itself is also the homecoming.”  Stirred by memory, Sharon’s eyes well, a tear streaking the softness of her cheek.  She doesn’t resist, letting the emotion move through her.  Her eyes narrow, seeming to focus on a distant point, perhaps surveying an immense, faraway desert in her mind’s eye.  “When you come in,” she says softly, “Someone will inevitably say, ‘Hey, welcome home.’”


More information about my lovely, amazing friend Sharon and her work can be found here.

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  1. Gerry Cartier:


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