When Cows Make Art

Baker County Tourism
Baker County Tourism / Baker County Tourism

It is said that those who seek beauty will find it everywhere. This is certainly true of Whit Deschner, a writer-turned-art-critic in Baker City, Oregon. Deschner is the creator of Baker City’s annual Great Salt Lick Art Auction, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Farmers and ranchers from around the region bring in blocks of salt that their livestock have licked into interesting shapes. The tongue sculptures are judged and auctioned off at a party that brings the whole town together.

If you didn’t know what you were looking at, it really would be easy to mistake the used salt licks for works of modern art. That’s what got Deschner thinking, back in 2006, while visiting a friend who had left a used-up salt lick in front of his cabin.

"We'd had a couple of beers, and it just started looking more and more like art to us," Deschner told NPR. "Could be outside a federal building."

The next step was obvious—to Deschner, anyway. There would have to be an art contest.

Deschner’s neighbors were understandably skeptical at first. But eight years later, the Great Salt Lick Art Auction has become the party—and the art event—of the year. Despite the seemingly random nature of salt-lick sculpture production, a good-natured competition has arisen among the locals.

“I think my cows do an OK job, but I really feel my sheep have brought it home for me,” rancher Kim Jacobs told NPR.

A fresh salt lick retails for about $5, but the finished works of art are auctioned off for much more, between $200 and $1000. The auction is also a fundraiser for Parkinson’s disease research, so every sale is a win. That idea also came from Deschner, who has Parkinson’s disease. He told NPR that living with the degenerative condition has taught him one thing: “You have to follow your folly.”

To date, the auctions have raised tens of thousands of dollars and have inspired a sense of good-natured weirdness among Baker City residents, including cattle ranchers Beth and Fred Phillips.

“We'd like to think our cows are more artistic than they used to be, but, to be honest, they probably aren't,” Beth told NPR.

“They're definitely more artistic than our neighbors’,” added her husband.

All photographs are courtesy of Baker County Tourism.