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"Mountain Picassos" Exhibit Features Basque Art

A traveling exhibit of Basque Art opens in Reno next week.  It features elaborate carvings by local sheepherders who used Aspen trees as their canvases decades ago.  Reno Public Radio’s Steve Shadley introduces us to a married couple that’s been collecting these unique carvings for nearly 50 years.

Jean and Phillip Earl used to spend a lot of time camping around Lake Tahoe and that’s where they developed a hobby that became an obsession.  Jean said many years ago they visited an art exhibit that featured a few carvings made by Basque sheepherders.  They were found by some hikers.

“We thought they were interesting and different," said Jean Earl.  "We had never seen anything like that.  And, we decided to go up and see if we could find them and see what they looked like on the tree.   And, so that’s how we started.”

The Earls talked to us as they sipped coffee in the dining room of their home near the University of Nevada-Reno.   Jean is a retired nurse and Phillip was a history professor and a curator with the Nevada Historical Society.    Locating the carvings around Lake Tahoe isn’t always easy.  Phillip explained they used old maps and books but they also depend on a little logic.

“What we just looked for was a place where there was a meadow and there was water.  And, you’ll find if there’s a meadow and there’s water…the Aspen trees are going to grow there," said Phillip Earl.

Aspen trees have beautiful white bark that resembles a blank canvas.  The sheepherders used a knife or sharp object to scratch the images into the trees.

“The sheepherder when he carved," said Jean Earl.  "He did like a pen and ink drawing just through the bark.  And, then the tree was injured and so it made a scar and that scar is raised up and that’s why we can get the image because the scar is raised up," she said.

The Earls place paper or muslin over the tree carvings.  They use a piece of chalk or charcoal to make a rubbing of the images.  The artwork is abstract and it can date back to the 1880’s, but many were created in the 1930’s and 1940’s when sheep herding was popular around Lake Tahoe.      The Earls believe the carvings add something to the local history of the Reno-Tahoe area because the Basque came here from Europe to start a new life.  Jean said the sheepherders became artists to pass the time.

“They were up there by themselves.  They had nothing to do except watch the sheep.  They carved all types of themes," Jean said.  "They carved animals.  They carved houses.  They carved nude females.  They carved people in ethnic dress.  They carved soldiers.  Um, what else?  Did I miss anything?  (Phillip replied)  They carved fish…horses, dogs.  They carved everything but sheep.  They saw enough sheep,” Jean said.

The Earls have made rubbings of about 150 Basque carvings over the years.  Jean showed off one that features a man smoking a pipe.  The lines in the design are very clean and simple.  It’s a profile of a man who appears to be walking.

“This is the first one I found and its my favorite.  I would keep this one over any other, although I do have other favorites,” Jean said.

Jean grabbed another rubbing of a carving.  Their living room is full of these images.

“We did give names to all of them so we would be able to keep track of which one to discuss which ones.  This one is a bird with a fancy tail.  This one came from Pole Creek.  Just on the way to Squaw Valley.  It’s probably the most elaborate one we found.  This bird for some reason has a very fancy tail.  I don’t think it’s meant to be a peacock.  Maybe so…but anyway…it’s a very nice image,”  Jean said.   Phillip added "This tree has fallen down now."  Jean said "It’s gone. And, remember Phillip there was another tree, an evergreen that had grown up in front of it and he had to hold it back while I did the rubbing," Jean said.

It takes team work to preserve the images.  Phillip and Jean sometimes go back to see the trees and they’re disappointed to find out they have died.  The bark carvings have fallen away.

“I’m sure about 75 to 80-percent of the trees that we’ve found are no longer there," Jean said.  Phillip told Jean "Show him the skier."  Jean replied "Oh, yes.  This one was on a tree and it wrapped around the tree, so you can see taking a photograph would be pretty difficult.  And, it’s pretty typical of the nudes that we found, they usually have an elaborate hairdo they usually have a crucifix around their neck.  This one is interesting because he actually carved hands.  Many times they didn’t do that.  She has on high heels.  All of the ladies have on high heels, always.  And, many times they’ll  have a belt.  They’ll have the high heels, the belt and the crucifix," Jean said.  Phillip added "And, notice the breast work.  They’re one on top of the other.”

Some of these tree carvings are a little risqué featuring nude women in different poses.  The carving Jean was talking about showed a nude female in high heels on a pair of snow skis.  Jean said the future of these carvings is murky but she’d like to share them with everyone.

“It’s an art form and different than any other art I know of and I would like people to  recognize that and give it some value,” Jean said.

A few years ago, the Earl’s published a book about the Basque carvings.  Now  you can see a few images from the Earl’s collection.  Starting June 2nd they’ll  be displayed at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno.  The exhibit:  “The Mountain Picassos:  Basque Arboglyphs of the Great Basin” is sponsored by the Nevada Arts Commission and the Nevada Historical Society.  

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