Bluff, Utah • Wading through the coverage of yet another interminable election season, the Bluff-based writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist Ellen Meloy recommended vacuuming up screws or stuffing forks in a blender to drown out the sounds of a televised presidential debate.
“Snagged on a reef of intolerance and self-interest, we look for heroes in the wrong places,” she wrote in “Sick of Election,” a 1996 radio essay. “We ought to admire people who make something creative out of their lives but don’t care if anyone else knows about it. We need people who refuse to go through life as doorknobs. We need eccentrics.”
Every fall for the last nine years, artist Joe Pachak — who was a friend of Meloy’s before her death in 2004 — has allowed the town of Bluff to participate in a creative spectacle for its own sake that Meloy would have approved of, whatever the election cycle.
Pachak, 70, spends months constructing a multistory animal effigy out of natural materials gathered from the landscape only to watch it go up in flames on the longest night of the year in an annual celebration of impermanence and renewal.
For the 2019 burn, Pachak built a 28-foot-tall pair of ravens over two months and two days of work, with his only break a four-day elk hunting trip in November.
The birds, which were finished last Thursday and burned on Saturday, stood shoulder to shoulder, their wings outstretched in a feathered embrace to honor a scene that Pachak witnessed in the canyons of the San Juan River years ago.
Pachak uses no tape measure or plumb line for the builds, but works off of a simple sketch while letting the curves of the natural materials guide him. He can often be seen clinging to the side of the sculpture 20 feet off the ground as he perfects some attachment with pliers and wire.
“When I can grab a stick that has this certain bend in it and put it up there and tighten it in two places and step back to see how it has become the shoulder of something, that’s as inspiring as anything,” Pachak said. “To have just a little bit of control over the stance and configuration — it feels like Leonardo da Vinci’s saying that a painter could be the master of their universe.”
Many of the Bluffoons — the term town residents use to describe themselves — who have helped Pachak with the sculpture over the years have noted how remarkably the finished products match the sketches in his notebook that are his only written plans.
“A lot of it is possible through commitment to the endeavor,” Pachak explained, “and the more commitment, the more magic flows to the object or idea.”
Jose Yavari, a graphic designer from Boulder, Colo., was camped near Bluff during the first days of Pachak’s build in October and ended up staying throughout the entire project, working with Pachak during the day and doing his design work at night.
“I had no idea who Joe was,” Yavari said, though he had seen pictures of previous burns. Yavari was immediately impressed with the process and watching Pachak work. “Some days I could see his brain just channeling this image from his head. I was telling myself, I’m so glad I’m here to be a witness to this performance art.”
Pachak built his first sculpture at age 11 while growing up in Pueblo, Colo., and has been at it ever since. He moved to Blanding in 1983 to teach drawing and art history at Utah State University and the White Mesa Institute before moving to Bluff five years later. A renowned expert on prehistoric rock art, many of Pachak’s sculptures are on display throughout the county, including at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding and the Bluff Town Park.
He recalls that earlier in his sculpting career he tried to make pieces “at human scale” so he could move them by himself. In 2011, however, he shot an elk with a bow and arrow and decided to create an effigy of the animal to burn on the winter solstice as an offering. He held the ceremony in his backyard with 20 or 30 people present, he said.
In the years since, Pachak’s builds have grown in size as has his audience. Recent sculptures have included a mammoth, a pair of great blue herons, two bears standing on their hind legs and a running coyote.
The builds require assistance from dozens of volunteers like Yavari who collect the wood, grass and reeds used for the structure and bundle them together with wire. “The community is an amazing thing,” Pachak said.
In recent years, the burn has attracted hundreds of people from all across the Four Corners region who gather near the center of town to watch the towering creation be reduced to a pile of coals.
Yavari said he could see how it would be easy to get attached to the final product, but he respects the lessons imbued in the creation of an artwork that is not meant to last. “This is an offering,” he said. “This has a deeper, bigger meaning because eventually, you know, we are all going the same way.”
“If we consider the meaning of the saying ‘ashes to ashes,’ we’re all feeding the earth,” he continued. “When we’re trying to get better than the other person in town or whatever, we forget that we’re all here temporarily.”
On the afternoon of the solstice, the ravens, which Pachak noted are notoriously clever, had a final trick in store to test that sense of nonattachment. Volunteers were helping Pachak remove some small supports from under the ravens’ legs hours before the burn when one of them snapped and the entire sculpture collapsed onto its side, the ravens’ wings still in an embrace.
The event and the burn went ahead as scheduled with raven stories from elders of the Diné and Ute Mountain Ute tribes as well as musical and dance performances.
Pachak, glad that no one was hurt, found symbolism in the unexpected turn of events. “I started this creative process that I adore so much with the hope that nothing would go wrong,” he told the gathering of several hundred people just before the burn. “I believe the creative process was carried through with the collapse of the embracing ravens. I believe that might be a metaphor for all embracing animals: the collapse of a species, the collapse of an environment. We are all connected in a net and when part of it collapses, other parts go with it. I hope we have our consciousness raised by seeing such an event.”
A few days before the burn, Pachak said 2019 would be the last year for the tradition, but in his remarks Saturday, he left some ambiguity. “I want you all to have a good year,” he said. “And I want you all to come back next year after you’ve traveled around the sun while standing on this Earth.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.