SITW 2004: A Day in the West with Joe Pachak

Joe PachakJoe Pachak, an artist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, permaculturist and volunteer firefighter in Bluff, Utah was our guide for nearly four days through the landscape and ancient cultures of the stacked red rock country. He spoke through slideshows, stories, art and silence, revealing to us the depth and beauty of civilizations that thrived in the sandstone desert thousands of years before our modern lives began. For three days I was filled with awe, reverence and an overwhelming sense of humility. I was humbled by the endurance of Puebloan histories and by Joe's radiating passion for their culture preserved on patinad rock walls. He instilled in me a feeling much deeper than a "don't touch" respect and inspired me to see life beyond my own reality.

It was apparent in the epiphanies of my peers, that Joe had a remarkable and lasting impact on all of us. Just as Joe wove the history of Puebloan culture into our minds with personal narrative and story, I wanted to share our experience with Joe through the beautifully varied accounts of the Westies.

Harmony Paulsen

"The small hotel lobby is warm and dark but for the screen at the foot of the stairs. [] Joe stands in front of the screen nervously, but knowledgeably, answering his audience's questions. I sit transfixed by the world of the ancestral Puebloans - fascinated not by the facts and images on the rocks themselves, but by the stories Joe recounts to elucidate each broad-shouldered human figure, each spiral, each scraped hole. Joe does not limit his interpretations of the panels to archaeological theory he allows the symbols, beliefs, and stories of the living Ute and Navajo people to animate the stony display. [] The artists carved images of birth, dance, harvest, death. There are snakes, plants, flute players, staffs, couples in copulation. Human bodies, human thoughts.

Underworld, Cracks, Fertility

Natural features of the rock-face--particularly cracks--were significant in interpreting the markings. Darkness and cracks indicate the underworld, where spiders live, where cool air flows from on 100 degree days, and where all life emerged. Many symbols in the rock were associated with fertility, emergence, and returning to or leaving the underworld. Surrounding the cracks we would see animals and streams of people marching forth on parallel pecked lines representing paths like those used as roads pecked into the sandstone nearby, and frequently symbols of fertility: female figures giving birth, lobed circles, or male figures with large phalluses.

Coyotes, snakes, and lizards, spiders, and all those who dwell underground are still associated with the underworld.

Joe reminds us that the rock art was done by many different civilizations, one artist's work frequently superimposed over another's." - Savanna


"The overlap is a conversation of images between the younger generations and their ancestors.

[As] a southwest sculptor and painter [Joe is] inspired by his lifelong devotion to the preservation and interpretation of the [Puebloan] ruins that fill the washes and rock faces of the Four Corners region. The Utah dust settles permanently on his skin, and wrinkles encircle his eyes, softening their fierce gleam that appears when he deciphers a rock panel. Joe [] uses his passion and broad knowledge, gained by years of observation and respect, to carefully interpret the ancient offerings. He examines the faded figures, hands sweeping over the shapes like a conductor, gathering energy from the wall but never touching." - Rebecca


"This is what people felt, as a passionate expression on this rock."

"One by one the figures ease out of abstraction as his slow careful words connect scratches and abrasions into symbolic rituals and traditions." - Isaac


"Under the rhythm of his voice, silhouettes of female figures with oblong shapes beneath, become signs of fertility. A wall of holes becomes the night sky. Two lobed circles standing together transform into twin males, sons of the Spider Woman deity. Skinny creatures with bent knees joyously dance in holy ceremony. Four disks connected together become a butterfly, the symbol of mystical transformations. How advanced these people really were - how intelligent. How much observance and faith they must have been filled with. The rock art no longer seemed simple or ordinary, but complex and extraordinary." - Jessica

"Pueblo cultures are living cultures.
The anthropological idea of a vanished race isn't true.
The people are still here."

Top: Female figure gives birth
Middle: Female figure with ladder to womb
Bottom: Two male fluteplayers

"[We continued to] walk winding paths through drainages and slickrock stepping-stones, in search of artistic puzzle pieces explaining [their] lost culture. As I round a bend of canyon, a thin, black veneer weeps down walls of sandstone following the flow of rain waters. Geologists call this phenomenon desert varnish. Dutiful hands used sticks, animal teeth, and chert to peck sacred images into this teardrop residue. Here on these walls, a series of petroglyph panels record birthing scenes. Floating nearby, stick figure arms entwine each other in scenes of copulation, revealing the beauty of an act focused to bring life up out of the underworld into the piercing light of day. [] The simple shapes of circles, lines and squiggles combine into human forms invokes a Minimalist beauty. The prominence of birthing petroglyphs indicates a great respect for and celebration of life." - Lindsey


"Joe [...] calls petroglyphs "art for survival sake; the seeds of content that comes alive." He emphasizes the importance of preservation of the rock art. He respects the culture that lives on in prehistoric spirits, asking permission for entrance into ancient dwellings with the drum of two rocks." - Laura

Site #3

Site 3 was pecked with numerous indentations the size of a fist. This place was, as Joe explained, a very sacred site for the Basketmakers: "Potentially a site where newly married couples came to pray for a child. They would sprinkle corn pollen into cuppulas in the rock, then grind sand from the surface above the cup and collected it in a bowl which the grandparents of the couple gave to them. Then the couple would rip a strip off of the woman's skirt and tuck it into the crack as an offering for spider-woman--the creator who taught the people to weave. Then the couple would make a burnt offering, mix in clay, and make a bowl to pass to their own grandchildren."

"[He] hits two rocks together - knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock. We ask permission to travel back, to enter [these] holy [ruins]. I unconsciously hold my breath as I enter an ancient cave with [Puebloan] handprints embracing the curved entrance. I long to press my hand against the 1300 year old fingers and palms. Some things are not changed by time. My hands look the same. They would create a similar mark." - Meg

"To capture the images on the rock panels we put a plastic sheet skin over the rock face and trace history. The painted purple twins that once graced a rock wall were recently orphaned and separated by a rockslide. In twenty years I wonder which images will remain, the ones on paper or the ones on sandstone." - Laura


"They are still with us, their art, their icons, carved into the canyons of the sandstone seas hold power in a living world." - Savanna


"The first stone is placed in the east. Then around, in a circle, just as the eastern sun rises and circles the earth. The second layer begins on the top of the first stone, and so on, leaving an opening at the top for a ladder. Upward spinning spirals create spiritual [Puebloan] kivas. Heart muscles, DNA, plant formations all spin around eachother. Joe tells us, "This is not architecture, this is philosophy." - Meg

"Their philosophy was grounded in the red earth yet creatively interwove the immediate, the imaginary, and the profound." - Becca

Site #5

"Site 5" was the wall which we helped Joe to document. We used masking tape to secure clear sheets of plastic to the sandstone wall. Then we would use marker to gently trace the images on the stone.

The wall itself contained many types of characters. Flute-players, variations on lobed circles, and desert big-horn sheep. The most prominent feature is a pecked seven rung ladder about four feet high. Reminiscent of a real ladder kept at the Edge of the Cedars museum 40 miles away, this ladder shows the knots which hold the rungs in place, and has several figures who appear to be climbing. We learn of one possible significance for the ladder later on when Joe points to one ascending up into a female form: "Descending into a kiva is like climbing a ladder into your mother's womb."

"We were able to visit Joe at his art studio/home, and began to realize that he is a true rennaisance man. The house was surrounded by art-in-progress. Beautiful sculptures lined the driveway as we entered; concrete rock art people and creatures the color of canyons, carefully desert varnished. Bags of leaves, buckets, windowpanes for a half finished sandbag house, flecks of colored glass like modern day lithic scatter, chicken wire and bricks were strewn about. The place was delightfully untidy. Someone pointed to a stack of sandstone and asked "Is that a kiln?" "No, " replied Joe. "Its a pile of rocks." This is an example of Joe's sense of humor, wonderfully subtle, but you can't always tell when he is using it.

Joe lives in his art studio in a space filled with beautiful things. There was a circle of mismatched chairs, curving wooden sculptures, burls of wood, a woman's crying face with mushroom clouds for eyes, and a jaguar head covered with vivid beads nestled amongst bones, rocks and feathers. Fish swam painted across one wall, and the windows silhouetted the arching forms of cacti. A table groaned beneath stacks and stacks of paper copies of his beloved rock art - dozens of scenes on laminated paper. Cement bags were opened in the corner, paused in the middle of a project. Joe is always moving, always creating." - Erin


"Joe lives as a steward of the land. [...] A good steward manages the affairs of the land for the sake of the land and its inhabitants. On his own property, Joe is restoring vegetation and allowing water to collect forming a pond which will help raise the water table to support hundreds of trees. On the public lands around his home, Joe works to preserve the archaeological wonders as best he can. The symbols and figures from petroglyphs and pictographs find their way into his personal art, helping to raise public awareness of the artifacts lingering though rapidly disappearing. Genuine stewardship implies responsibility. Joe documents what he sees and leaves a small footprint. He inspires a new generation to make the land sacred once more." - Isaac

Joe insists that "there are only three things we need to do today - record, record, record." The sad reality is that we are losing rock art; petroglyphs and pictographs on boulders and rock faces are falling from cliffs, ignorant individuals are defacing sacred panels, and the acid in our environment is quickly eating away at rock surfaces. Petroglyphs and pictographs that have endured extreme weather conditions through thousands of years are now fading much more quickly due to our present-day impacts. Furthermore, old sites where kivas and pithouses once stood, have been buried by roads, trampled by increasing ATV use and looted by private collectors. We must seek to preserve these magical, inimitable places.

During our last visit with Joe, I asked why he studies rock art. He thought for a brief moment, looked up and responded with profound wisdom - "because it makes us more alive by studying it."

Assembled by Harmony Paulsen
Page design, graphic editing by Kalin Schmoldt
Sketches by Sarah McConnell
Photographs by Phil Brick