Buy a block of salt from a grocery store and you could lose $10. But after an animal licked it? Why, then it becomes modern art.
Salt blocks – those 50-pound cubes of salt offered to livestock and wildlife as a nutritional supplement – are the medium of choice at the annual Great Salt Lick auction in Baker City. The art contest and fundraiser asks ranchers to collect the most artfully licked blocks of salt from their pastures. The blocks are then sold at a charity auction for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars.
This year’s auction of 20 savory creations – featuring curves, grooves and holes carved by the tongues of cows, sheep and other animals – raised $14,030 for the Parkinson’s Center of Oregon.
“Racers, they’re kind of marginalized for having no sense of aesthetics,” event creator Whit Deschner said. “It just shows that they can enjoy a beautiful sunset like everyone else.”
As the slogan once proclaimed, the Great Salt Lick aims to put “culture” into agriculture.
Deschner came up with the idea for the event years ago while drinking wine outside his friend’s cabin. He noticed the block of salt his friend had left outside for the deer.
“It was just fantastically sculpted,” recalls Deschner. “I said, ‘This looks like something that would go in front of a federal building for millions of dollars. And he accepted.
Inspired, Deschner recruited fast-talking friend Mib Dailey to serve as auctioneer. Dailey was initially skeptical of the idea. Deschner is known as a writer, poet, photographer and – according to Dailey – “the local troublemaker”.
“I’m like, ‘Why the hell would anyone want a used salt block?'” Dailey recalled. “He says, ‘Well, you know people will buy anything if you put them in a good mood. “
It also helps to have a good cause. Money raised from the Great Salt Lick auction goes to the Parkinson’s Center at Oregon Health & Science University, where Deschner received treatment.
“I’ve had Parkinson’s for 22 years now,” Deschner said. ” I am very well. And I thought, well, I could do something about it and give them some money, and we were lucky enough to do that.
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Deschner held the first auction in 2006 with an audience of just 40 people. When the first block sold for over $100, he knew he would find something special. The auction brought in around $3,500 in the first year, and it has grown steadily ever since. In total, the event raised over $160,000 for the Parkinson’s Center.
“It’s a county of 16,000 people,” Deschner said. “That’s a heroic number to find.”
Salt blocks come in several colors, depending on the minerals they are supposed to provide to the animals. This means that the carvings vary from white to green to shades of red.
The “artists” varied from cows and deer to horses and rabbits. The beauty of abstract art is in the eye of the beholder, but Deschner has his favorites.
“Goats, sheep, they do really intricate, realistic work,” he said. “The cows are more or less impressionistic. I like some of their stuff. Horses are just hopeless. They bite him.
Sold blocks sometimes end up outdoors, where they end up being worn down by the elements and wildlife. A few of them come back to be auctioned off for another year.
“I’ve seen a block come back three years in a row, a little smaller each time,” Deschner said.
Bidder Valerie Potter of Baker City is a longtime Great Salt Lick fan who has brought back several pieces from the auction over the years.
“I usually share them with my horses, but it depends,” she said. “I have one that has a heart shape. It’s in my room. It’s nice.”
Stephen Crowley and his partner Ellen Matthew try to come every year from Boise, Idaho.
“We came initially because it seemed curious and surprising, and we keep coming back because of the people,” he said. “Charity can feel like you’re pulling out your checkbook and writing a check, and hopefully good things happen in the world. Mib and Whit make it personal.
After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Great Salt Lick auction returned in September to Churchill School in Baker City.
The highest price of the night came from a friendly bidding war between Potter and Matthew.
Matthew eventually brought home the salt sculpture – named “The Queens Crown” for a passing resemblance to it – for the record sum of $2,900.
“I don’t know. It just struck a chord with people,” Deschner said of his event. “They keep coming back, so we have to do something right. people kept bugging me.
The Great Salt Lick is now an institution in Baker City. And although it started out with a boost in what is considered modern sculpture, the city now has its own salt-inspired outdoor artwork.
In 2014, Deschner received a $5,000 grant from the Ford Family Foundation to install an actual four-foot bronze statue of a salt block in downtown Baker City at the corner of Court Avenue and Resort. Street.
“It’s almost embarrassing,” Deschner said of his legacy, “but yeah, I’m proud of it.”