Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Salt art has tongues a-waggin'

Salt art has tongues a-waggin'

Baker City art lovers marvel over a new contest at the feed-and-seed that shows cows (and horses, goats and deer) are truly worth their salt

Skyler Martin, 17, holds a salt lick on The Dailey Ranch in Keating where he continues a ranching tradition with his father and grandfather. Skyler says his grandpa, Meb Dailey plans to enter The Salt Lick contest but not before he discovers the perfect entry.

BAKER CITY -- As Whit Deschner walked through the woods behind a friend's cabin one afternoon, a weathered salt lick caught his attention. What a curious shape, he thought. Could it be art?

A photographer, farmer and the kind of guy inclined to see the humor in everyday things, Deschner had a hard time getting the question out of his head. That's easy to understand when you consider he lives in rural Baker County, where cows outnumber people 5-to-1. Salt licks -- those blocks of NaCl that ranchers use to supplement the diet of cattle -- are about as common as sagebrush in these parts.

Soon, a plan crystallized. Why not organize an art exhibit featuring the work of cows? Or horses? Even wild elk and deer?

Deschner called a friend who runs a coffee shop near Interstate 84. The friend, who thought salt a fine medium for self-expression, wasn't eager to host such a show because salt and coffee don't exactly go together.

Deschner, a Washington state native who is 53, was not deterred. He phoned a former neighbor who runs a feed-and-seed store, and his former neighbor loved the idea so much, he offered to provide every rancher who brought in a licked salt lick with a new 50-pound block in exchange.

Inspired, Deschner asked a handful of Baker City businesses to donate $50 toward prize money. None turned him down. The winner of the salt lick art contest will receive $200, second place $100 and third $50.

In Baker City, an old gold rush town, news of the contest spread quickly. A poster advertising the exhibit, to be held at the town's Crossroad Art Center, appeared in storefront windows up and down Main Street -- and on the Internet at On the poster the words "Cow Art at its Finest" are superimposed over a photograph of a bull sticking out its tongue.

Rancher Mary Lou Wirth, whose family runs 250 head of cattle in nearby Medical Springs, heard about the contest from a granddaughter whose watercolors of elk hang at the Crossroads gallery. The idea made perfect sense to Wirth. She has often marveled over the strange shapes salt licks can take.

The rules, she saw, were simple:

"All entries must be salt blocks licked by cows or other livestock. Range blocks licked by wildlife will also be permitted. Blocks licked by humans will not be permitted. Licks may be subject to DNA testing. Blocks with human DNA will be eliminated and offenders banned from future contests.

"All entries -- unless you really, really want your salt lick back -- will be displayed at Crossroads Art Center for the month of October. Judging committee will judge blocks for originality and artistic flair."

Wirth, like fellow ranchers of large herds, buys salt licks by the ton and had plenty to choose from: blocks spread over several summer pastures, blocks left upright, blocks knocked over, blocks licked primarily by cows but touched by the occasional wandering wild elk. She chose one, her husband another. Hers she named "Twin Side Delight" because it looked the same on both sides, which struck her as pretty unusual.

The Wirth licks were the second and third to arrive at the Oregon Trail Livestock Supply store in Baker City, which also runs a "Cutest Foal" photograph contest. According to the poster behind the counter, Mark and Stacie Holt won that agricultural competition and received a prize of six bags of Equine Junior.

Soon after the salt lick posters appeared, 10 more blocks, some cradled in bubble wrap and paper towels, arrived at Crossroads Art Center.

One came in named "Cow Lick Cathedral." Another was dubbed "Icnivad." The "One-Eyed, One-Horned Flying Brown Bovine Eater" appeared with a poem:
A field of bovine not too smart,

Were told to create a work of art,

Given a salt block to lick,

Each tried to make it slick,

A sculpture emerged -- off the chart!

When not used for poetry and art, salt blocks keep a herd healthy. White blocks are pure salt, red blocks contain added iodine, tan blocks provide selenium and other trace minerals, blue offers cobalt and yellow is spiked with sulfur. "We don't have any of those -- thank goodness," Deschner says. "They stink."

But is a block of salt really art?
Crossroads Art Center director Alyssa Peterson thinks so. She considers them like Marcel Duchamp's controversial "readymade" art.

"As long as you're seeing it as a three-dimensional form, it's no longer a salt block," she says, "it's a work of art."

Deschner hopes others agree. He's accepting entries until Oct. 3, and the show will remain on display until Oct. 24, when the gallery holds a special event and announces the winners. The blocks will then be auctioned and the proceeds will go to Parkinson's research at Oregon State University.

Until then, the licked licks will sit in the window facing Main Street, where they have already attracted stares and stopped passers-by.

If there's any question that salt licks are art, Deschner believes the answer lies in the viewer's response. "I see people walking by and it puts a smile on their face. I think that's what art is supposed to do.

"Isn't it?"

Click photo to enlarge

Larry Bingham:

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