Eight Vietnamese students sat in a nervous circle under the dusty ceiling of a large canvas tent. It was the end of the summer of 2019, and they were at Burning Man for the first time.
A man in zigzag black and white pants came purposefully into their camp and without introduction began to proclaim.
“Burning Man,” he said, “is the Olympics for creative people.” As he spoke, he drew his arm across his chest and flung his hand upwards, his fingers unfurling as if he were throwing a frisbee at the moon.
The students looked at the ground.
“And you know what happens when you win the Olympics?” He said.
The students looked up, unsure.
He repeated the flourish. “You win a medal!”
He knee-walked to the center of the circle and held out a plush box, the size of an iPhone. The students leaned in.
The man slowly opened the lid of the box.
The students gasped.
Inside, on the satin lining, there was a white and silver medal surrounded with colored jewels.
“This for us?” One of the students asked. “Really?”
The man rose from his knees and gestured again to the sky. “This is for you.”
The student began to cry.
Ty Eckley is a 68-year-old contractor and real estate developer from Houston.
He is also a jeweler and an artist and a futurist, and for more than 10 years, his mission has been to find and recognize artistic excellence at Burning Man.
He finds the art by foraging.
He spends a week before the event touring the hundreds of artworks being erected in the desert. And when Burning Man officially opens, he methodically traverses the semi-circular grid where 75,000 people camp to find the art there. He continues his explorations in the weeks after Black Rock City is deconstructed and the site is returned to a pristine state, looking for artistic excellence in the movies, books, documentaries and even academic papers published in the aftermath of the event.
When he finds art worthy of recognition, he “tags” the artist and delivers the award with the same showy and carefully choreographed performance he gave to the Vietnamese students.
But in this year of COVID-19, Burning Man has abandoned the physical world. When the week-long event opens on Sunday, Aug. 30, Burners from all over the world will be connecting via modems, and the art on display will be virtual. Eckley will be there too, foraging the “Multiverse,” a collection of eight virtual universes, for the type of creativity that is deserving of recognition. How that will work is still unclear, but Eckley is committed to making sure that it does.
In real life — what Burners call the “default world” — Eckley lives in the suburban community of Kingwood, near the George Bush International Airport in Houston. He has a conventional looking yard and four-bedroom home. He is a contractor and developer. He built a portion of Kingwood Town Center, a sprawling shopping center and park in the midst of a 14,000-acre master-planned community originally built when Exxon relocated to Houston from Connecticut, back in the 1970s.
Eckley sold off the first two of the retail buildings he built in Town Center, but he retained several others. Today he has 25 or 30 tenants. At dinner at Chachi’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Town Center, he knows the staff by name and doesn’t use the menu to order chicken tortilla soup and a shot of Patrón.
He is trim and fit, and sizzles with frenetic energy. He looks like Tommy Lee Jones playing Woodrow F. Call in the “Lonesome Dove” television mini-series. He is well-groomed and tidy, and does not run away from that description. “If you are a contractor and you aren’t tidy, you’ll soon be a member of the ‘nub club,’” he says. To explain, he holds up a hand with the two middle fingers folded over so they look like chopped-off stubs.
Eckley drives a white four door Ford F-150 Sport Edition with a pickup bed. Nothing in the truck signals that it belongs to a futurist and an artist and the veteran of 20 burns, except a small square on the dash where he has placed a rectangle of fur and, in it, a small glass vial, a polished piece of driftwood and a flattened silver sphere with a beveled ring around its center. He says it is an “alien compound.”
Eckley first went to Burning Man in 1999, and he has attended every year since. What drew him originally, and has sustained him since, is the community of creative people.
Despite the overshadowing narrative of drugs and nakedness and anything goes, at its root Burning Man is about art. Each year creatives from all over the world travel to the Nevada desert the week before Labor Day and fashion a city on the dry chalky ground that isn’t sand and isn’t silt but rather a clay-like material from a dry desert lakebed that gets muddy and pasty when it is wet and then dries into cracked, parched tiles.
The chalk is the exact color of a white canvas and the several mile open circle of desert chalk around which Black Rock City is built is called the Playa.
The making of art — music, painting, poetry, theater, mime, dance, sculpture, song — is the spirit of Burning Man. Burners, dressed in costumes, give each other artwork in random, if slightly self-conscious, acts of generosity.
Eckley gives out as many as 300 awards each year. He makes the artistic selections by himself, choosing from the tens of thousands of artistic endeavors that make up Burning Man. There is no committee, no submission procedure, no infrastructure.
He funds the project himself. He spends tens of thousands of dollars every year.
And while he is a long-time burner, friendly with many in the Burning Man hierarchy, this is not an official Burning Man project. This is Ty Eckley’s project. He doesn’t get anything from it. He doesn’t want recognition; he often doesn’t even tell an award recipient his name.
It is his gift to the Burning Man community, but it is more than that; it is a key part of his plan to change the future of the planet.
In 2000, Eckley created an experience at Burning Man that he called the Necklace Factory. He brought thousands of dollars-worth of gemstones, beads, stones, clasps, fasteners, chains, cords and settings. He erected a round canvas tent, the sort you’d see at a small circus, large enough to fit 15 or 20 burners sprawled on middle-eastern carpets and kilim cushions. Music was key. Eckley curated hundreds of hours of electronic music and laid it down in a continuous loop. Burners were attracted by the pulsing beat and stayed — often for hours — to make necklaces.
People came back year after year. Sometimes Eckley would photograph them wearing the necklaces they made. Looking at those photographs years later in his workshop in Houston, he describes them not by name or occupation, but by the vibe they gave off.
He loved the atmosphere of Necklace Factory. The driving music, the connections the Burners were finding with each other as they discovered how to make beautiful necklaces. So many considerations: Color and size. The hardness of the beads and stones and metals. People wouldn’t know anything about jewelry when they came in, but they’d learn they could create something of beauty and, as they did, the emotional energy in the tent would become so palpable that Eckley could reach out and scoop a handful with his cupped palm if he wanted.
As much as he loved the Necklace Factory, it kept him inside, in the tent. He couldn’t get out and talk to the other creators. He couldn’t see what they were doing.
Then one year, while the Necklace Factory was in full swing, he created a few cloth badges from a heavy red canvas-like fabric from Thailand.
He stitched them together in unusual shapes — each one different — and, in the gifting spirit of Burning Man, gave them away to artists doing work he admired.
Over the next several years, he gave away perhaps 60 badges.
By 2006, he realized that what he had been doing casually with the badges was a project unto itself. He had tapped into something that needed doing. He was recognizing the work of unrecognized people. People who might keep doing what they were doing if they knew their work was valued. He was telling them that it was valued.
He wrote and printed a proclamation to be given to the artist that began:
WE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE THINGS
We travel across the planet, each year, to meet with our kind.
We assemble in a grand, empty basin: an enormous dry lakebed in Western North America.
This Holy Place is a blank canvas for our works.
The proclamation ended with an exhortation to the recipient: “You are the winner. Our leader. The hope of the human race.”
Eckley went about finding works of artistic excellence, and when he did he delivered a printed copy of the proclamation — along with an ornate medal and carefully designed cloth patch — in order to recognize the work.
The recipients were often overwhelmed. They laughed and shouted. They hugged him. Sometimes, they wept with joy.
Behind his house in Houston is the “Workshop in the Woods” where Eckley pursues his many projects. He knocked down his garage and built the shop 10 years ago.
Eckley’s shop is on the second floor in a large L-space space that feels like a combination of a curio store, cobbler’s shop and writer’s studio. There are several workstations — he likes to have a workstation for each project he is actively pursuing — and each is dense with components and tools. Throughout the shop there are more than fifty 3” x 8” slips of white paper taped to walls, furniture, lamps, windows. They all say the same thing: “Fierce!!!!!!,” an exclamation he drew from the 2016 memoir of the gymnast Simone Biles, “Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance.”
There is a long table where he works on jewelry. He can scoot from a desk on a wheeled chair down the length of the table, behind which are 560 drawers stuffed with the components of necklaces, metal and stones and gemstones from all over the world — amethyst, jasper, howlite, obsidian — perfect to string together in brilliant necklaces.
When Eckley shows off this inventory, he opens drawer after drawer, oohing and aahing, as if he had never seen the contents before. “Look at this!” He shouts, “Isn’t it amazing?”
Eckley grew up in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. He described the kids in his town in Oklahoma as “mean little animals” and remembers being duped into a game with a rope, thinking it was a jump rope and finding his feet tied and seven or eight kids dragging him across the ground.
His parents took him to a local bookmobile. “I loved the bookmobile. … love, love, love the bookmobile. Because it was a window out of tinyness.
“Reading saved me,” he says. He would go to the library after school, “and that’s where I read Heinlein. And then I found Bradbury. And I don’t know, since then maybe I’ve read four or five thousand science-fiction books.”
In 2009, he ended the Necklace Factory and put all his efforts into the awards, now called The Necklace Factory Burning Man Awards.
Work on the awards goes on year around. He has to design and commission the medals and the proclamation and the badges.
He has to carefully organize and label them in separate packages for delivery. Organization is everything when you are trying to make personal delivery to hundreds of artists in the chaotic world of Black Rock City.
Even when he has found a work of artistic excellence, it can be tricky to tag the artist.
Sometimes he has to camp out for hours to wait for the artist to appear. Once, he sat on his suitcase waiting for a DJ to finish a three-hour set only to find that when the set was over the DJ scooted off to relieve himself before Eckley could tag him.
After he tags an artist with an award, it is important to get away quickly. People want to feed him. They want to have a drink with him. “They’ll pour me drinks that are 75% vodka,” he says., “If I drank one I would be useless.”
Since he first began tagging artists he has given out something like 2,000 awards. In his “worst year,” he gave out only 167 awards, but usually it’s closer to 300. 2019 was a record year; he tagged close to 350 artists. At Thanksgiving, he was still at it; he had seen a fleet of motorized surfboards filled with thousands of LED lights zooming across the playa at night, but he couldn’t find the owners. But afterward he learned they were based in Palo Alto and, through an emissary, he sent them an award.
Eckley has a message for the artists he recognizes: “You did something remarkable and you can never get away from that. That is now permanent. … Deal with it.”
Torrey Smith is CEO of Endiatx, an endoscopy, diagnostics, and treatment company he founded in 2019. He is proud of the fact that six of his nine original investors were Burners. Smith says, “I’ll never forget that one day in 2014 when my entire camp gathered me up and showed me a beautiful pendant and award that we had received from a man named Ty Eckley. It was as if I had found my people, and they were giving me permission to become the person I was meant to be.”
Kirk Strawn, a member of Camp Walter, says, “We have felt the pride when recognized for our contributions and have ultimately been motivated to do more for the Burning Man community. We frame our certificates with the medal alongside and have hung them proudly in the places where we gather and celebrate outside of Burning Man. They remind us of the value of our hard work and of the joy.”
Chris and Carrie Jurney created an art project in 2018 called the Flamigator, a large metal alligator-ish structure. The Flamigator was connected to a big red button mounted on a tin lunch box 150 feet away. People would press the button and “be surprised by a giant poof of fire” from the Flamigator’s open mouth. Chris Jurney says “It seems clear the existence of an award for anything at Burning Man is as ridiculous as making a fire breathing metal alligator, but it also seems to line up just perfectly to me.”
Eckley has no shortage of projects at any given time – “it’s not six or 60,” he said. “it’s more like 600.” The problem is getting the time. He doesn’t like to go to bars; any chance he gets he is in the shop “banging away.” There is no time to waste. He is nearing 70, and he is driven to get his projects as far along as he can.
The most ambitious of the projects is “The Photographer,”a 200-episode TV series that seeks to change “everything.” He has visualized more than a hundred of the episodes and for each one he has written down the camera shots needed to pull it off. Pages describing each episode are collected in four bulging black accordion files. Some pages include dialogue, others are more like storyboards.
It has the feel of a science fiction script — it begins with an unusual man seemingly alone on a desert planet — but it is quickly apparent that this is not a conventional sci-fi story. It is more like a set of instructions for how people can discover the story that is burning in his mind.
To provide insight into his concept of “The Photographer,” Eckley provides an illustration.
He wants “The Photographer” to help others see what they can accomplish. One goal is to “pull a sleeping Segment of Humanity into The Future.” “The Photographer,” Eckley says, is “an insanely powerful tool,” he says. “It’s just like a machete going through the jungle. The people that are behind you; they can all come and make it a sidewalk.”
Eckley travels through Burning Man in an art car named the Ghost Slipper, a large blue sequined Arabian slipper he built on the chassis of a golf cart with a pointed toe in the front that rises and curls back toward the driver like the stinger on a scorpion. The speed limit for art cars at Burning Man is 5 miles an hour, and he keeps to that level as he drives through the crowded camping area looking from side to side for art that is truly worthy.
One afternoon in 2019, in the space of a few hours, he tags the owners of an enormous art car called the Scorpion. Driving on, he spies an ornate drink urn at a small bar used to mix drinks for passersby. He tags the bar’s proprietor, a middle-aged burner dumbstruck by the recognition.
Eckley drives the Ghost Slipper by a camp with a radio station theme. He knows from prior years that the former head devolved camp leadership to his son and then did not come for several years to allow his son to grow. The father, Roger Wilson, came back in 2019 and was amazed at what the son had accomplished. Eckley tags both the father and the son.
Wilson is deeply touched. He says he does many things, and he does them because he wants to, not to win an award, but “to have somebody come up randomly and say ‘whoever made this’ that’s an awesome thing. And the sentiment that you had on there — that this is what makes it worth being a human — was so incredible and so fucking awesome.”
In 2019, Eckley launched a new and particularly ambitious extension of the awards project to recognize people who have done things — often behind the scenes — that have made Burning Man the place it is today. At first, he referred to them as “Service Awards,” but he now calls them “Wagon Masters Awards” to evoke the work of the people who drive wagons on a journey to help others bear lighter loads.
He commissioned four medals for 2019 — each a one-of-a-kind work of fine craftsmanship — from four accomplished jewelers. The work took months.
Eckley presented the awards in four individual ceremonies at Burning Man.
The project cost Eckley thousands of dollars, but he intends to continue because it allows him to honor the people who have done the things that have made Burning Man the Olympics for creative people.
Paul Delathauwer, an artist who created one of the medals, agreed to do the project because of Eckley. “We had a chemistry right away, and I think he has a really great way of communicating. And his ideas are pretty abstract. I really appreciate his artistic style.”
Delathauwer doesn’t know anyone doing what Eckley is doing. “His awards currently really do honor excellence in art history and execution,” he says. “It’s a true award. and it comes from an individual who has a high standard himself.”
He says, “There’s so many different kinds of art work here. And the surprise is how creative everybody is. And I think that’s what the award celebrates, that diversity of creativity.”
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All of Eckley’s projects are after the same thing.
Most people, he says, have a “truncated view of life.” They accept the tropes of family and duty and commercial stuff “as if that is all there is.”
There is an easel near his workstation, and to make the point, he draws an “n” shape. Above the crossbar of the n, he draws a thimble and colors it so it looks as if the n is wearing a large gaily colored hat. He draws angry dark lines that divide the n from the hat. He explains that too often people only go in the area underneath the n; they don’t get through into the colorful open space above.
It bothers him. He doesn’t know why “people would design a world around them that has a lower ceiling.” But it doesn’t work for him, “I’m too big. I don’t fit,” he says.
He says that there are many tropes that create the artificial ceiling — family and duty and commercialism.
Sometimes, it is religion.
“And what they don’t understand,” he says, “is that their religion is the training wheels. You take the training wheels off and then you take the bicycle away. And you go. And then that bicycle, you turn it into wings and then you go. And then that turns into a spaceship. And then you go and then it turns into software and you make time and space.”
“My job … is to make the time and space that other people walk through …”
He presses his two hands together, fingers extended.
“That’s the beauty part. That’s where there is magic. Delicious change. Richness. Bounty. Hope. Happiness. Sabor.”
He smiles again, clearly contemplating how amazing it will be when he makes that happen.
Burning Man 2020 will not be anything like the events he has attended over the last two decades. But Eckley does not doubt that there will be astonishing creativity, and he will adapt so that he can fully participate. He is planning to buy a VR headset so he will be able to create an avatar that can travel to and view the immersive universes that are being built.
And even if this year’s event lacks the serendipity, spontaneity and human touch that have been at the core of the experience, it won’t matter. He explains that going to Black Rock City “is a week-long camping trip in the desert at the end of the summer. Burning Man is every day.”
Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist interning at the Bay City News Foundation and Local News Matters after a 35-year career as a lawyer. Dworetzky was awarded Necklace Factory Burning Man Awards in 2014 and 2015 for a short story and artwork conceived at Burning Man. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.