The Artists In My Barn



Years ago, a popular folk story told of a farmer who went to a museum and discovered abstract art, especially free-form sculptures. Some of the latter looked vaguely familiar to him. Back home, doing chores, he realized why. The salt block his sheep and cows had been licking on looked remarkably like some of the sculptures in the museum. Hmmm. By and by he arranged to get one of his half-eaten salt blocks into an art display. The block, worked on for weeks by dedicated sheepish tongues, had been turned into a glistening white flow of curve and undulation, its evocative indentations and protrusions suggesting the erotic and exotic, a creative energy yearning to break loose from the chains of gross matter, a deft hint of the eternal verities… and all that horse manure that art critics know how to spread so well.

Yes, you guessed it. The sheep-sculpted salt block won first place in the art contest and someone paid a couple thousand dollars to take it home and display it proudly as an example of the grand height to which abstract art had climbed in these oh so modern times.

Never make too much fun of human folly. The craziest stories have a way of coming true. I just learned (a segment on NPR) that out in Oregon, farmers and ranchers regularly hold The Great Salt Lick Contest, at which salt block sculptures formed by the tongues of sheep, cows and deer are auctioned off to connoisseurs of abstract art. Oh sure, it is all for a worthy charitable cause, but while some blocks sell for only a hundred bucks, some go as high as a thousand. No doubt about it. Some are better than others in the eyes of abstract art.

I have been overlooking the most profitable enterprise on my farm. My sheep sculpt amazing abstractions out of their salt blocks but I can’t show you at the moment because they just ate the one they were working on completely up. If only I could find out which ewes have the more talented tongues, I could segregate them and in a few years I might breed a sheep whose genius rivals Michelangelo’s.

Salt block art gives me an excuse to launch into two of my favorite prejudices. Agriculture, I say, is the mother of all art, especially if you define it as the love/hate relationship between mankind and nature, between human determination to turn food into an economic product and nature’s refusal to cooperate. It takes art to make that unquiet partnership work, and the portrayal of that partnership in word, paint or music is the prime matter of made art. Surely salt block sculptures are a perfect example of that partnership.

But in a different conversation, let’s get serious here. What would the masters of art criticism have to say if they were comparing the art of a Corriedale ewe with that of a human abstract artist? Especially if they didn’t know which work belonged to which artist? I have seen sand and snow sculptures created by the wind surely as beautiful as human abstract art. If I dipped a cow’s tail in various cans of paint of different colors and then let her swish repeatedly against a canvas, who’s to say whether what resulted might be as worthy of display in a museum as Jackson Pollock’s swishings? Andrew Wyeth told me about how he once literally threw some black ink against the top of a canvas he was working on (“The German”) and watched it puddle and then run down the canvas, forming rather abstract tree trunks and foliage, exactly the kind of background for the painting that he was striving for.

I am thinking of putting my ewes’ next work of art on our mantle and waiting for visitors who have never seen a salt block or a farm animal licking it. I wouldn’t say a word about my art piece. What would they say?


As a painter myself I have learned everything in nature is abstract, it is only our learned words that we use a word like table to describe a general idea of table-ness but in reality we experience every table as a grouping of abstract relationships within other abstract and spacial relationships. Yes the job of the art gallery is to sometimes convince someone to buy a silly idea but I think even Gene might agree that the job of the artist is not to make pretty things that have an already agreed upon table-ness but rather to evoke an honest expression for others to contemplate. If the artist does this they are doing their job, but if the viewer is not open to a shape of form because it lacks their idea of table-ness they are not doing their job as a viewer.
Is any human really qualified to reason that something is art or not? And does it even matter?

This supports an idea I’ve had for a long time…that those of us who live with real ‘mess’ don’t need it on our walls or mantle pieces. It came to me one day as I was making a load of pig feed and was adding the various ingredients to a hopper ready for mixing. There was the rusty brown of meat and bone meal, the near black of dried blood, golden brown of fish meal, creamy white milk powder and a splash of vitamins and minerals. Each of these was tossed into the hopper and when I looked at the final result I thought, “Who needs modern, abstract art?”. Then I really considered the question and decided the answer was, “Those with too-tidy lives” …not me!! 😎 February 2, 2013 at 7:08 am

    What a perfect observation! I think you might be absolutely right … there’s probably a grant out there somewhere to research it 🙂 In the meantime I now have an answer to why I don’t care for abstracts … I live in one…

      Sue Rine, and Jan, I am with you guys totally. My favorite abstract art as a boy was to let a drop of oil (from an oil can) fall on the horse trough water. It makes the most luminous, abstract waves of color, green, blue, brown, yellow, purple, orange, emanating out into the water. Since then, I’ve seen many videos of waves of color accompanying music and the oil drop on water is as hauntingly “beautiful” as any of them. Beth. My conribution to very dry barnyard art was to give a grandson a birthday cake one year, a very dry cow pie with little sticks in it for candles. Gene

Great piece there Gene.In my opinion man made art is a distant Also Ran to animal and natural art.The salt blocks are interesting as are some rocks I run across especially those in some creeks around here that have small rocky falls in them that have been shaped over time by the water.There is a solid black type rock that is very hard and it will endure when all others are worn away.Also another great art is the trunks of trees that have been squeezed and twisted into a sprial by things like grape vines and huge Honey Suckle vines,even the old Broom Sage blowing in the wind this time of year has an artistic look.

That’s great. I’m a painter and I find the “art scene” unbearable. Nature contains the truest art.

Maybe if it were VERY well dried, Barry!

@Beth G, there’s an age-old management joke about the southbound leavings of a northbound bull, with the employee (farmhand) labeling it Bu!!&hit and the president declaring it “A powerful force for change” -like we see now, come to think of it, A Meadow Muffin or Pasture Patty as a table centerpiece certainly would be cheeky, though…

Gene… Can you please, please, please put a Facebook “LIKE” link on your blog template? I’m not a big facebook user but somehow, every time I read a post of yours here I find myself scouring the page once more just in case there’s a like button that I haven’t found yet!!

Too funny! I’m with everyone else. I hope you’ll bring one to OEFFA.

We have legalized medical cannabis cards here in Oregon and lots of people in Portland so probably have a better market for salt block art. Unless you live near Austin or Washington DC.

“Abstract art is a product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.” Al Capp

I think the bottom line is that beauty and idiocy are both where you find them. And not so easily distinguished. January 30, 2013 at 7:09 am

Oh, please enter it in your County Fair! Or take one or two to Wooster and let them display it at the Local Roots restaurant … I bet even North Star restaurant in Columbus would take one! Oh, oh … use it on your display table at the OEFFA Conference! I can come up with a million places for these! They are beautiful, too!

I don’t know if I could get away with putting something on the mantle. The artists in my barn work mostly in manure…

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