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Indelible markers

Herders’ legacy in tree carvings on exhibit


Tree carvings called arborglyphs provide clues to a Basque shepherd’s life. Courtesy photo

    Along with the gold in the Western hills there were sheep, lots and lots of sheep. And for the most part, it was Basque immigrants who worked as sheepherders from the late 1800s to the 1960s.
    In summer, sheepherders would trail with their sheep up into the mountains for cool water and lush grass, whiling away the days lolling in aspens that edged the plush meadows. Bored or feeling creative, many carved their names and etched drawings onto the soft white bark.
    A new exhibit at the Ketchum-Sun Valley Ski and Heritage Museum called “Immigrant Shadows: Tracing the Herders’ Legacy” is a collaborative installation by Earle D. Swope and Amy Nack celebrating the tree carvings (arborglyphs) left by sheepherders on the mountain aspens of Idaho. The installation is an interpretive grove of paper compositions representing carvings, trees and the forest canopy. It is an early event leading up to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which runs Oct. 11-14 in Ketchum and Hailey and celebrates the tradition and culture surrounding the sheep life.
    Festival Executive Director Mary Austin Crofts said artist Amy Nack used a utility knife to cut images of trees and leaves into large panels of paper, creating a sculptural landscape of aspen trees. Cutting into the paper simulated the experience of herders cutting into the delicate bark of the aspen.
    A canopy of branches and restless paper leaves shelters arborglyph castings and tall, narrow panels to create a fictional mountain grove. The negative spaces resulting from the cuts cast filigree shadows and reflections and hint at the earlier presence of the solitary immigrant herders.
    Swope has sojourned into the mountains of Idaho creating plaster and silicone casts of the herders’ actual arborglyphs. From these casts he has created facsimile castings using cotton paper pulp flecked with aspen baste fibers. The resulting castings are arranged into an ovoid grove, allowing the viewer to stroll through the “carvings” examining them both collectively and individually.
    Diminutive wires suspending the installation allow minimal air currents to move the panels and carvings, causing the shadows to flicker, further bringing the aspen grove experience into the gallery.
    Throughout American history, the immigrant has been relegated to the shadows of society. The nature of the exhibit transforms the viewers into participants as they witness their shadow cast amongst the shadows of documentation left by the herders.
    The arborglyphs are quite temporal as aspens only live an average of 80 years. The short life of the aspen parallels the generational apprenticeship that America requires of new citizens. Thus the demise of the arborglyph often corresponds with the acceptance of the immigrant into society, leaving no trace of the herders’ legacy.

See ‘Immigrant Shadows: Tracing the Herders’ Legacy’
What: An exhibit to lead off the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
Where: Ketchum-Sun Valley Ski and Heritage Museum in Forest Service Park.
When: Now through the festival, which runs from Oct. 11-14.
Details: Call 726-8118 or visit Adults, $5, children free.

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