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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Eastern Oregon is known for a lot of ranching. Less so for works of art. But as Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center reports, some residents who are involved in the ranching industry are gaining noticed for modern sculpture.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

TAKI TELONIDIS, BYLINE: So we're in the middle of a pasture outside of Baker, Oregon, probably, oh, 30, 40 feet away from a black cow licking a white salt block.

To most of us, this may look like a bucolic scene from ranch country, a smattering of black cattle on a vast field that spreads toward distant mountains. But for Whit Deshner, it's art in the making.

WHIT DESHNER: You can hear how rough the tongues are.

TELONIDIS: So, it's almost like sanding that thing into shape.

DESHNER: It is, isn't it.

TELONIDIS: Whit is probably the world's foremost connoisseur of salt block art. These sculptures start out as 50-pound cubes of salt - about a foot long on each side. Ranchers give them to their livestock as nutritional supplements. Six years ago, Whit was visiting a buddy who'd put a block out in front of their cabin. It caught their eye.

DESHNER: We'd had a couple of beers and it just started looking more and more like art to us. Could be outside a federal building.

TELONIDIS: What the deer left behind looked like a swirling sculpture of grooves, pinnacles and even a small porthole. To Whit, there was only one thing to do.

DESHNER: Why not have a salt lick art contest?

MARTIN ARITOLA: Oh we all thought he was crazy, you know. But it turns out we were the crazy ones.

TELONIDIS: That's Martin Aritola of Oregon Trail Livestock Supply, one of many businesses who at first were dubious but now support the Great Salt Lick Contest. It's just a couple days before this year's event, and this is one of several locations where ranchers are dropping off licks for the contest.

KIM JACOBS: This nice mixed artist one - that was a real good one.

TELONIDIS: Kim Jacobs has just come off the range with two sculptures to enter in the contest. Her licks join about 20 others on a long table in the center of the store, each with paperwork that includes the title and species of artist. Some animals lick sculptures that look like vertebrae from prehistoric creatures, others like windswept sandstone formations you might see in canyon country.

JACOBS: I think my cows do an OK job, but I really feel my sheep have brought it home for me, yeah.

TELONIDIS: Despite all the tongue-in-cheek humor, there is a serious side to the Great Salt Lick: it's an auction and fundraiser to support Parkinson's Disease Research. Organizer Whit Deshner himself has Parkinson's, and walks with a stoop and trembles. He says living with the disease has taught him that...

DESHNER: You have to follow your folly. To tie the Parkinson's into the salt licks into the auction maybe is a foolish idea, but what the heck.

TELONIDIS: And over the years, Whit's folly has raised more than $30,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TELONIDIS: Putting on the Great Salt Lick is a community effort, and on the night of the auction, the mayor and his band kick things off with some cowboy tunes. It's not long before the hall is packed with the most unusual collection of people.

MIB DALEY: Cowboys with cow manure clear to their knees and beat up old hats and wine-sipping hippies and some of the more elite high-dollar people around town, you know.

TELONIDIS: That's Mib Daley, a local rancher and the official auctioneer for the Great Salt Lick.

DALEY: They don't normally get along that well, you know. And when they get in a situation like this with the Salt Lick auction, they just all get along. It's weird.

(LAUGHTER)

GINGER SAVAGE: Our auction item number one is Lots of Lick by Tom Roujak. The animals that licked it was Ruger, Cowboy and Baby, and they were horses.

DALEY: All righty. Somebody give 20 bucks and let's go. 20, now a five, on five on a 25 dollar bill. Give your money, give a five dollar bill for...

TELONIDIS: One by one, the salt licks are brought to the stage and Mib takes off with the bidding. Blocks sell for about five bucks at the feed store, but here most sell for two to three hundred dollars. And a few of the more unusual pieces...

DALEY: A thousand dollars for it. Give a 10 hundred dollar bill, leave a money, give a 10, 10, 10. Now a 10 - you say yeah, now 10 hundred and a quarter, now a quarter, now a quarter...

TELONIDIS: In the end, the auction raises well over $12,000, shattering last year's record.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

TELONIDIS: Everyone leaves the hall with a smile on their face, including Beth and Fred Phillips, who raise Angus cattle and entered four salt licks in the contest.

BETH PHILLIPS: We'd like to think our cows are more artistic than they used to be but to be honest they probably aren't.

FRED PHILLIPS: Definitely more artistic than our neighbors.

TELONIDIS: So, how do you nurture your artists?

PHILLIPS: We breed for it now.

TELONIDIS: For NPR News, I'm Taki Telonidis in Baker City, Oregon.

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