Sodium Sculptures

Is Baker City Home to the World's Weirdest Art Show?

For a decade, Eastern Oregon's Great Salt Lick Contest has auctioned off surreal sculptural blocks of livestock-gnawed sodium. It's goofy—but is it also art?

By Marisa Russell September 6, 2016

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The World Naked Bike Ride. Adult soapbox derbies. McMinnville's long-running UFO Festival. You probably thought you’d heard it all, but here's one weird Oregon event you might have missed. Behold, Baker City's September 17 Great Salt Lick Contest—the "world's one and only," still going strong 10 years in.

Here's the backstory: a decade ago, the now-Portland-based Whit Deschner was sitting on his neighbor’s porch, washing down some colorful conversation with a few beers, when his friend placed a salt block out for his livestock. As they watched the cows lick the block into a swooping, majestic sculpture, Deschner's booze goggles convinced his brain to see the gnawed-up chunks of salt as art. Morning came and the idea stuck; the Great Salt Lick Contest/Auction/Benefit was born.

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How does one participate in the contest? It's simple, if you've got livestock: grab a salt lick from a local feed store (a square foot, 50-pound block packed with minerals made to replenish an animal’s nutrients, according to Deschner) and let the artist have at it. Once the masterpiece is complete, drop it off at Baker City's Crossroads Art Center with a completed application for entry, and get a replacement block in return.

All the proceeds from the silent and live auction benefit the OHSU Parkinson’s Center of Oregon. Deschner, a patient there, has raised $75,000 for research in the last ten years, or “about $5 per person in [Baker] county or a little under a dollar per cow." 

Says Deschner, the 10th anniversary celebration will consist of a helium-filled auctioner, a sacred cow theme, and a beer named after the contest by Barley Brown’s Brew Pub. That's not all all he said:

What’s the story? How did you know this was going to be worth the effort?
It started out I didn’t know at all how it was going to work. The first block went for $100 and after that I just knew it was going to be a success.

Tell us more about where the funds go.
They go to the Parkinson’s Center of Oregon at OHSU. We also built a giant salt lick statue [with some funds], which is down in Baker City. It’s Baker City’s first piece of public art. It was created after a salt lick but then we put an extra bump in it so it could be more interactive for people to climb on.

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Do you think the cause sparks a lot of interest in the contest?
You talk to people, and almost inevitably someone they know has Parkinson’s. It’s not a treatable disease now, but they’re learning how to slow it down. So that’s encouraging. It’s really heroic how much the people here have contributed to the contest, how much they can get behind something like this. I’m really proud of the community.

Have any entries violated the rules (no steroids allowed, no human artists)?
Absolutely. For the most part, the forgery is obvious; people are going to forge them just for a laugh. The rule states that you can’t lick them—you know, we don’t want people locking their kids in the closet for three days to make a salt lick so we had to make that illegal… [laughs] I’m just kidding.

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How do you judge the more than 70 entries each year?
It’s absolutely confetti in the area. One year, all the judges were people running for judge, present judges, and past judges here in the county. That was an absolute disaster—they couldn’t decide on anything! This year, since it’s the year of the sacred cow, I’m having all the clergy, all the priests, and the former bishop. I don’t know if I can get them all, but so far I got the Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

What happens if there’s a tie?
If we don’t have a tie, we’ll make one! For the last five years, we’ve had the Future Farmers of America kids bring in a tame cow. (I tried to bring it in the building but they wont let me, so we have it out in the courtyard.) We put the two [tied] blocks down, and the cow will go to one or the other. It’s pretty unfair, really, because the cow doesn’t care. 

You have some pretty interesting categories—like “Looks Most Like Michael J. Fox,” “Best Forgery,” and more. What’s a memorable one for you?
One year I had a category for a block that looked just like Janet Reno. I wrote her and asked her if we could use her name, and she wrote back this very nice personal letter and said, "Yeah, but can you send the winning photograph to me?" And I said sure. So people voted and it wasn’t a very nice-looking block—it just happened that was the one that won. Instead of mailing the picture to her, I FedEx’d her the block. But I never heard from her since.

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What types of animals normally create these sculptures? Is it a mad cow party? What about other livestock?
The people with goats—goats and sheep are Realists. They make these fancy little scoops with their tongues. They’re really quite eloquent sometimes. Cows are more like Impressionists. Horses are absolutely hopeless; they have no sense of art whatsoever. I used to have horses [that participated in the contest]—like I say, they were hopeless.

Do you get a lot of out-of-towners at the event?
About one in five or six people come from out of town for the event. We had a couple that first year we had the event—they were driving through, and then they came back specifically for the event. One guy last year came from Boise; it was the second year he’d come and he brought his wife for their anniversary present. I guess they’re still married. The bottom line is, it’s just a good laugh.

So… what do people usually do with the salt licks that they purchase?
A lot of the businesses buy them and display them inside the windows. The bookstore has about 12 of them on display. It’s like a salt lick museum in there.

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Image: Whit Deschner

Do people ever say to you, "This isn’t really art"?
The first year I had it, we were setting up the show and we had the doors open to the gallery. This old couple walked in and the guy was just cynical right from the start. He just kind of said "huh" at every block he came to. After a while, he and his wife had this dialogue going across the gallery, because they were the only ones in it. Finally she said, ‘These are really interesting" and he says, "Mildred, Mildred, these are salt licks! We’re leaving!” I just thought it was hilarious because he looked at it for 15 minutes trying to make it into art.

But what about the supporters? What do they say?
This old farmer came in [to drop off a salt lick] once and it just had BS [written] all over it—basically he just wanted a free replacement. It was no bigger than a hockey puck, completely shapeless and everything. I was down there and I was apologizing to the feed storeowner, saying "I’m sorry this happened." And he just looked at me and said, "Who are you to judge art?" I thought that was a pretty good reply.

The 10th Annual Great Salt Lick Contest will take place September 17 at the Crossroads Art Center in Baker City, OR.

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