Every year thousands of people come together in Black Rock City just three hours north of Reno, Nevada to create a culture of art, community and radical self-reliance. Referred to by some as “that thing in the desert,” the occasion is commonly known as Burning Man. This nine-day event is fueled by Ten Principles that were written by co-founder Larry Harvey. These principles are the fuel that ignite the communal efforts among burners around the globe. This is a story of two men, a sweater and making a difference that began at Burning Man, and is creating a positive influence on people’s lives year round.
About 10 years ago former East Texas native Tex Allen found himself welcomed by the San Francisco Burning Man community during an intense time of change in his life. In 2006, while he was at a San Francisco State University costume sale, he saw a brightly colored sweater in a bin, purchased it, and began wearing it in the hot summer sun. People gravitated to the sweater. Everywhere he wore it, without prompting, Allen would hear people say that’s an “awesome sweater,” earning the name, “The Awesome Sweater.”
Allen has worn the sweater to Santacon, and multiple Halloween and Christmas events. The awesome sweater continued to have an endearing effect on all who came in contact with it. Allen has unsuccessfully attempted to have the sweater replicated. The reality is this sweater had its own path, its own journey to fulfill, and Allen has committed himself to this 100 percent.
The sweater, also referred to as a colorbomb of love, has been to Burning Man three times. It has traveled around the world at least once in the past five years. “Because of our interconnectedness, it’s always flowing through, and that sweater is one of the many magical objects that come out of the playa,” Allen said. Subsequently finding its way
to becoming the “Awesome Sweater Project.”
“It’s not my sweater; it’s whoever owns it at the time; it’s whoever is the caretaker of the sweater-they’re the alchemist in real time. That sweater changes you,” Allen said.
In November of 2015, Manny Torres reached out to Allen. He wanted to be the caretaker of The Awesome Sweater.
“I was inspired by the magic that the sweater brings and the love it reproduces,” Torres said. He received it in the mail from Allen within a few days.
Torres, about to complete his master’s degree from California State University in Educational Therapy, was born and raised in Peru until the age of 9, then raised in Pasadena, California. Often he finds himself in downtown Los Angeles and overwhelmed by the conscious act of “skipping over people on the streets.” Instead of spending money on himself and ignoring the issue, in the spirit of the Burning Man principle of “gifting,” Torres would spend his time finding art in downtown LA and gifting homeless people socks and toothbrushes, while wearing the sweater.
Over the next five months, what started from the Burning Man principle of gifting expanded.
The Awesome Sweater Project had 30 people in attendance at it’s most recent event to help feed the homeless on the streets of L.A.
“We nicknamed the sweater the ‘smile maker;’ sometimes it repels people too,” Torres said.
Torres, wearing the sweater, describes his appreciation for Allen in Center Camp during Burning Man in August of 2016. He has never met Allen in person. He was supposed to meet him at the 2016 burn, but at the last minute, plans changed. Torres believes that Allen achieves so much through the sweater and other projects without even physically being there. Allen often refers to the concept of “Burning in real life,” and Torres did just that with his project he is calling “Silliness and Joy.” “I was handing out gifts; it brought people to tears. That is my goal, to touch people, with nothing in return. It’s creating a change for me,” Torres said.
Torres now has a board of eight members working to become a nonprofit. Three words he used to describe Allen were, “Amazing, beautiful and speechless- speechless because I don’t have real words to explain this man. The outreach he [Allen] does balloons, bigger and bigger,” Torres said.
The awesome sweater was promptly returned to Allen in September, dust included, per his request that it not be washed. Allen is well-known for wearing a red nose all over the United States in order to make people smile and spread happiness in an otherwise occupied world. One can find more information at whythenose.com. Currently he is devoting his time to “spreading love around the world” person-to-person with his latest project, Hugs Across America.