A ‘mammoth’ undertaking

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The tamarisk-control project in the borderlands of Southeast Utah and Southwest Colorado had an interesting side effect. A few years ago, when the voracious, tamarisk-eating beetle was let loose on the banks of the San Juan River, it ate its way to a rock panel near Sand Island – exposing petroglyphs some say may be 13,000 years old.

A mastodon was found among the images pecked in the varnish. And according to Joe Pachak, longtime resident of Bluff, Utah, there are four more pecked in an arced U shape about 60 centimeters apart.

The final word on the projected Paleolithic ages of the art works may be up in the air, but that will not keep Pachak and fellow raconteur artist J.R. Lancaster from paying homage to the presence of the hairy mammoth in the nearby desert rimrock at the eighth annual Bluff Arts Festival.

The artistic happenings are spread over a four-day weekend, Oct 18-21. As they did last year, Lancaster and Pachak are presenting another giant, three-day sculpture workshop in which they and the first 10 volunteers to show up will create a replica of the mastodon in tree limbs and steel.

Lancaster and Pachak, the backbones of Bluff arts for many decades now, work the edges of the desert like two pros from an urban underground. Lancaster, a painter and photographer, is well-known for his oversized photographs of exquisite moments of canyon cliffhanging. His paintings border on the expressionism of the 1960s – bold, content- exploding brushstrokes and large-scale, often humorous comment.

Pachak is known for his three-dimensional work – sculptural statements on natural elements and the cycles of nature. He weaves the concept of sustainability and life energy into found material, turning the common grounds of shared natural experience into exquisite representations of the obvious and essential relationship. He is that rare artist viewers often credit with giving them their first “aha!” moment.

Currently, he is finishing a large concrete piece in honor of the desert bighorn sheep. It is dedicated to the late author Ellen Meloy of Bluff. Because, “among so many influences she had on us all, she is also responsible,” he says, “for the footpath that takes us from Bluff down to the river.”

The sculpture will be placed permanently on the banks of the San Juan River south of the Recapture Lodge.

Lancaster and Pachak will be holding court in their three-day workshop with 10 volunteers, tall stepladders and a selection of tree limbs picked from the community limb pile they will use to construct a giant tribute to the mastodon in the cliffs at Sand Island. “It is a likeness that reaches 10 feet tall at the shoulders,” says Lancaster, “bigger than an elephant and with horns that turn up, like the petroglyphs Pachak is documenting down there where the beetles ate a corridor to the cliff. We used to get there by climbing under the brush, but now that it died, the glyphs attract a lot of attention. Even National Geographic has come to help document the dates.”

Volunteers on the project will get the additional privilege of great storytelling from the sculptor team, as well a professional exposure to the technical education of working on a largescale public piece.

Last year, Pachak says, “we made a giant elk and then later I got an elk in season. We burned the huge elk sculpture on the solstice in December like we will do with the mastodon this year. “I threw the flaming atlatl into the elk to start the fire. This year there’ll be more flaming atlatl throwers to celebrate and burn the giant tribute to the mastodon with us.”

Also opening the Bluff Arts Festival on Thursday night is Kate Harris. She will read from her work “Lands of Lost Borders.” This year The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers chose Harris, of Vancouver, British Columbia, as the recipient of the seventh annual Desert Writers Award. A grant of $3,000 will support work on her upcoming book, “Cycling Silk,” which examines a 10-month bicycle trip through 10 countries along the ancient “Silk Road” of Marco Polo fame.

The trek, accomplished late last year, covered 10,000 kilometers of alpine desert ecosystems between Turkey and India, or in her words, “…from the Caucasus to the Karakoran mountains, and on the Ustyurt, Pamir, and Tibetan plateaus in between.”

The central theme revolves around borders, “the boundaries that atlases depict and armies enforce,” she said. Harris and her cycling partner spent months in each region learning the lay of the land, tracking migratory species such as Marco Polo sheep and Saiga antelope across their trans-boundary ranges, and interviewing local people, wildlife biologists, and government officials – “all to better understand how borders impact the integrity of wild species and spaces.”

“I am writing a literary non-fiction book that aims to bring the Silk Road’s stunning, complicated borderlands to vivid life in minds and hearts,” Harris says. “For this is wilderness conservation’s most crucial project: making people fall in love with wild places, making deserts and mountains more than merely backdrop.”

The Ellen Meloy Fund gave its first award of $1,000 in 2006. As the fund has grown, the board has increased the grant award. The fund supports writers whose work reflects the spirit and passion for the desert embodied in Meloy’s writing and in her commitment to a “deep map of place.” Before her untimely death in 2004, Meloy published four books, numerous articles, and radio commentaries. Her last book, “Eating Stone,” won the John Burrows Association Medal for 2007. An earlier work, “The Anthropology of Turquoise,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The Bluff Arts Festival is hosting a rangy variety of events throughout the four days – something for just about anyone – even a tiny film festival of important cultural / documentary films.

If Free Press readers missed the Rocks with Wings Film Festival in Shiprock last June, another chance to view some exceptional work by rising filmmaking stars will show on Friday, Oct. 19, from 7 to 10 p.m., at the Community Center.

Melissa Henry, Red Ant Films (see Free Press, June 2012), will present the essence of being a horse in the short narrative, “Horse You See.” Ross, the star of the film, walks and talks the business of being a horse on the Navajo Reservation. It is an opportunity to learn about the Navajo culture in a typically humorous, down-to-earth approach to defining identity through beauty and simplicity. Henry is also showing “Run Red Walk,” starring a sheepherding dog, and, “A History of Navajo Wool: As Told by Baa Baa,” currently in pre-production, finishing the trilogy at the Bluff showing.

In the Friday film festival, Ramona Emerson and her husband, Kelly Byars, Reel Indian Pictures, are screening, “A Return Home,” the story of a landscape artist raised outside the Navajo Nation.

The theme this year at the festival is “ARTchitecture.” It’s flexible, so speakers and workshops can be drawn from more diverse and collaborative practices. The documentary, “Design Build Bluff,” describes projects that connect the graduate design students from University of Utah to the families they select to build homes for in and around Bluff.

Now, after nine successful building projects with founder Hank Louis, the students have enough shared experience to tell the story of their work with contextual nuance. Filmmaker Greg Windley, Handstand Productions, focuses the narrative on the lessons learned by students and how the project in the field will express their design philosophy in the future.

The keynote speaker on Saturday night, Oct. 20, is also an architect. Genevieve Baudoin will talk about site and context informing the unique architectural style of the Southwest. Baudoin, now a professor of architecture at the University of Kansas, has designed projects in London, Abu Dhabi, and Doha Qatar.

For more information on the festival see www.bluffutah.org or contact Tina at 435- 672-2253 or tkrutsky@frontiernet.net.

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From October 2012.