When I first met Claire Roberts, I was struck by her measured and articulate demeanour. As peers in the EMBERs small business program, there were times when conversations between the eight of us at the table could get fraught, but I never saw her lose her cool.
After our classes together, we kept in touch as a group, meeting at each other’s homes to discuss business strategy, successes, and challenges. I was intrigued when Claire told me about her work as a ranger with Burning Man.
She graciously agreed to a chat with me at her roomy East Vancouver loft/workshop/living space.
Over a big pot of rooibos tea we talked about her volunteerism for the yearly festival that now draws 70,000 people to the desert, how she’s claimed ownership of her art practice, and busting out of the mold of smallness.
“I feel like there’s so many different ways to experience art, create art, to use it as a vehicle to connect to yourself, to other people, to your community, and I’m only now feeling like I’m really getting a vibe for how to do it in a professional, self-directed way where I am basically acting as the creative director of my life right now and it’s kind of awesome.”
Growing up in gritty Point Saint Charles in Montreal, she found authentic expression through art and hung work in a group gallery show at 20. Daunted by the esoteric culture of the art world, she pulled out of the Dawson College Fine Arts. Migrating to Vancouver, she worked at a novelty shop before landing a job at a bank on a dare. Completing the Vancouver Film School’s 3D Animation and Digital Effects program, she discovered her visual skills lent themselves to the process of game design and she’s been active in the industry for 14 years. While she was paying the bills by day, she explored other forms of expression, including singing and bellydancing.
“I was a fire breathing belly dancer. I performed with a local small busker circus and in 1996 I saw clips of Burning Man on Weird TV hosted by Shadow Stevens,” she explained. “I had never heard of it I didn’t know anything about it, but here are all these people in costumes making art cars and playing with fire and making stuff and being weird and I was like I need to go there!”
Even though she felt a strong tug, she wasn’t able to attend in person until 2004.
“It just felt like home immediately, because I don’t want to use the word transient, I don’t think that’s right, but it’s an impermanent home.”
Unlike my impressions of a chaotic free for all, Claire felt respected and embraced. She credits the work of the rangers with keeping everyone seen. “I think as a species we need that when we get together in large groups, we need some structure or chaos ensues.”
Her work as an artist is continually evolving, her most recent project being a digital story documenting her quest for place and belonging as part of a workshop facilitated by Lorna Boschman of East Van Digital Stories in tandem with the grunt gallery.
For Claire, wearing the ranger hat is a means of forgetting herself in the service of others, a concept widely accepted as a direct route off the self loathing expressway.
“For six hours we walk around sober with a radio and just be available. It was a revelation to me because at home I had wanted to become a ranger so that I could do something and then I became a ranger and I realized it’s not actually about doing anything, it’s really just about listening and being available. Well that’s all I have to do for six hours, that’s like a break for me. I’m usually so busy that it was a time for me to enjoy the event, to meet people, and talk to people, listen to their stories and ask them about their experience and meet other rangers and learn how they ranger their situations and kind of skill share that way and it was very enriching, much more than I had expected and I brought that home with me as well.”
The biggest asset to serving as a ranger is listening with compassion and checking judgement at the gate she says. “It’s critical to just be a good human if you can.”
As I heard more about her practice and her commitment to community, my heart sank when she talked about how she used to quiet her expression and shrink her gusto down in order to be palatable.
“I had spent so much of my life trying to be small and I know that sounds like an oxymoron, it sounds like a contradiction because I’ve done so many big loud things, but if there’s a stage and a spotlight it’s my job, so I can go out there and do the thing and shine as bright as I can because I’m on stage. But what about the rest of my life? The days that I’m not on stage, there is no script to follow, when it’s just me and I’m trying to get along with everybody and I’ve always felt kind of worried about that and concerned about how I come off ‘oh you’re too intense, oh you’re so emotional’. You know, all the stuff that people get told.”
She went on to say the stereotypes that cling to artists simply aren’t true most of the time.
“I found there were so many of these myths that people were living by. Like the myth of the scattered artist, I am not really a scattered artist. I am pretty organized and meticulous when it comes to what I’m trying to accomplish and I show up on time and I have my notebook and I’m ready to go. But I would bump into the airhead label a lot. You know, of people looking at other artists and saying, ‘oh well they’re like that because they’re an artist’ Or they’d say it about themselves, ‘oh well I’m an artist so I don’t have to think about that stuff or I’m not good at that stuff because I’m an artist’. You’re not good at it because you say you’re not good at it and you don’t try to get better at it, that’s actually why you’re not good at it. We all suck at writing with our non-dominant hand.”
For years I thought of Burning Man as an orgiastic sexfest with a big bon fire at the end. I didn’t take the art seriously and turned my nose up at an event without bathing facilities. After talking with Claire, I can see the power of community and the capacity for life changing compassion in a dusty temporary city filled with people living their truth.
At a time when business owners are seeking solutions for all manner of operational difficulties, taking inspiration from a scrappy festival in the desert could lead to the shifts in perception that success is forged from.