Artist Joe Pachak puts finishing touches on his seventh-annual winter solstice sculpture
by Zak Podmore
Since October, artist Joe Pachak has been constructing a 25-foot tall coyote sculpture in the center of Bluff. The body is made of cottonwood, willow, and tamarisk and it’s covered with a “fur” of native grasses. All are local natural materials – “found objects” as Pachak calls them – and all flammable.
Pachak put the finishing touches on the coyote on Monday, but the completed sculpture will stand for only five days. On Friday evening, Pachak will help volunteers throw flaming atlatl darts at the piece, setting it ablaze to celebrate the winter solstice.
This is the seventh solstice sculpture that Pachak has made in Bluff, and for those attending this year, Pachak hopes people will have “a delightful, creative experience the night of the burn.”
But even before the flames are lit, people are taking delight in Pachak’s creation. For months, vehicles have been slowing on Highway 191 as passers-through and locals survey the progress.
Pachak built his first sculpture at age eleven and has been at it ever since. He moved to Blanding in 1983 to teach drawing and art history at Utah State University and at the White Mesa Institute. He stayed for five years before moving to Bluff.
He recalls that early in his sculpting career he tried to make pieces “at human scale” so he could move them by himself. The size of the solstice sculptures, by contrast, require assistance from many volunteers, and the spectacle of the burn regularly draws hundreds of people from all across the Four Corners area.
“The enthusiasm of the crowd is really something,” Pachak says, “and they have an investment in coming down here. It’s inspiring to me. I love the connection with the community, and the community’s connection to the outside in relationship to the effigy. Every year it’s different; every year it has its own statement.”
The first burn was an elk sculpture that Pachak built to honor an elk he’d hunted in 2011.
“I got an elk with a bow and arrow that year,” he says, “and I decided to make an effigy. I threw a burning dart at it and set it on fire. I think there were between 20 and 30 people there, and they liked it.”
Then Bill Davis, a local archaeologist, suggested Pachak build a mammoth. In addition to being an artist, Pachak is a leading authority on the area’s prehistoric rock art and is convinced he discovered several mammoth petroglyphs that date back to the end of the Ice Age.
That second year, Pachak followed Davis’s suggestion. That’s when, he says, “things got out of hand” in terms of scale. More burns followed, including a pair of herons in 2016.
The elk that started the tradition took just four days to build, Pachak notes. The coyote has taken him and a host of helpers a total of four weeks, spaced out over several months.
Last year’s piece, which was inspired by the Bear Dance of the Ute Mountain Ute, featured two 40-foot tall bears standing on their hind legs. Pachak hopes participants in Friday’s event take away a respect for culture.
“Last year we were very much connected to the Ute with the Bear Dance,” he says. “This year, I’ve invited Curtis Yanito, a Navajo medicine man, to say a prayer. In Navajo, they believe they keep the world in balance with those prayers. And that’s what I’m after this year.”
The idea for a coyote sculpture came from Pachak’s neighbor, Paula Sayers, who reminded him the winter solstice comes at the time of year when coyote stories are told in Diné tradition.
Pachak explains the stories are associated with “the winter, when harvest time happens, when hunting can happen, and also when the Rabbit Tracks [constellation] appears in the south. The Navajo call it Rabbit Tracks and we call it Scorpio.”
Bluff will host other events leading up to the burn on Friday, Dec. 21.
Friends of Cedar Mesa is welcoming visitors to attend a free solstice celebration, which will be taking place all day at the Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff. Navajo tacos will be for sale starting at 11:00 a.m., and craft activities will begin at 1:00 p.m. From 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., a series of speakers will discuss Hopi, Diné, Ancestral Puebloan, and UK connections to the winter solstice. An archaeology talk will be held at 4:30 p.m. at the Bluff Great House site on Cemetery Hill.
Community Rebuilds, an affordable housing and natural builder training program, will host an open house for their recently constructed straw bale home in west Bluff at 825 West Cottonwood Ave. Stop by between 4:00 and 6 p.m. to tour the home and learn more about the program.
The solstice burn, which is also free and open to the public, will take place after nightfall across from the Recapture Lodge in Bluff.