Sheepherder Pacomio Chacon: An artist among the aspens

Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 2:10 PM
This Paco Chacon carving is on a segmented part of an aspen tree at the White River Museum of the Rio Blanco County Historical Society in Meeker. The carving is in the back of the museum close to an historic sheepherder’s wagon.
Paco Chacon carved a self-portrait on this aspen tree on Aug. 24, 1983.
The White River Plateau between Rifle and Craig to the north and from Meeker east to Oak Creek has stunning aspen groves in the fall especially on Ripple Creek Pass, which is part of the Flat Tops Scenic Byway.
Paco Chacon’s self-portrait includes his signature and the date.

In researching sheep and public lands grazing across Colorado, I have seen hundreds of carved aspen trees or arborglyphs. But only one artist of the aspens truly stands out. His work enlivened the White River Plateau.

I never met Paco Chacon, but I have followed him through the forests. In the 1930s, he worked as a sheepherder in the Uncompahgre National Forest, and on aspens, I have seen his long, flowing script and excellent penmanship.

He was born in 1916 at La Mesa del Poleo near Coyote, New Mexico, at the height of sheep numbers in the American West. His father, Antonio, also herded sheep. Pacomio Martinez Chacon, known as Paco, not only kept sheep safely bedded down at night, but over the decades, his aspen art took on a unique style. Some scholars now consider him a “master folk artist.” On Colorado’s Western Slope, he probably had no equal, especially in the carving of curvaceous women in silhouettes with hair styles from the 1940s and 1950s.

From the Mesa of the Wild Mint and the northern New Mexico community of Coyote, Chacon came to live in Fruita, according to historical archaeologist Steven G. Baker, author of My Name is Pacomio.

HHHPaco Chacon carved trees, sandstone and careful nudes. He knew hard work. His outdoor life with summers in the mountains and winters in the canyons kept him fit and healthy. He died in 2009 at the age of 93.

In 1932, Pacomio began herding sheep with his father for the Jay Redd Ranch on Elk Mountain in the Manti La Sal National Forest in southeastern Utah. In the summer of 1938 on the Uncompahgre National Forest, Paco and his brother, Jose, had serious and continuous attacks from bears that had developed a taste for lamb and mutton. He trapped and killed 11 adult bears and his brother 14. Occasionally, he had to drink from the same ponds that sheep did. He said that water always tasted like wool.

Deep snow in the winter of 1938 found sheep buried to their chests with extra feed a necessity. Mules dragged sleds into Dry Creek Basin near the Disappointment Valley and Paco, staying with his flock, fed them all.

Eventually, his herding took him north to the White River National Forest and the Seely Ranch near Meeker, where he herded with Narcisco Martinez, his brother-in-law. Like other herders, Paco assisted with chain migration bringing cousins, uncles, brothers and friends from Coyote, New Mexico, into Colorado to herd whenever a sheepman needed extra help.

His day began early, at 4 a.m., with the rise of the morning star – La Estrella del Pastor, a small fire in the stove to warm the tent, and coffee. A bite of cheese. By 5 a.m., he slowly moved his flock toward their daily feeding grounds always wary of coyotes, which like to pounce as the herd begins to line out on a trail. He kept la borregas out of the dark timber where they can trip and fall in the spruce and pine.

Between 9 and 10 a.m., Chacon had his flock near water and deep shade for mid-day while he returned to camp, chopped wood, brought his own water, ate a more substantial meal, prepared bread and napped, with the dogs always on alert. By 3 p.m., Paco left camp to gently move the sheep to better feed and to graze them until twilight before tightly bunching the woolies as an effective deterrence to coyotes.

HHHThough his life as a herder rarely changed, his artistic skills progressed. Sheepmen and forest visitors came “to realize that the pictures he has been carving on aspen trees for so many years are much more than idle graffiti,” said archaeologist Philip Born who interviewed Chacon in 1987. “They are now coming to him and paying him to carve a picture on an aspen tree and using the picture as decoration for their home. The well carved picture on an aspen tree is now an art form in its own right.”

Paco carved nude women as angels with flowing capes. Sometimes, his wife visited in camp on the Uncompahgre, but for years, he only saw her 15 days in the fall and a week in spring. His carvings reflect the longings of all lonely herders who would delight at finding a Chacon drawing as they moved sheep up a driveway high in an aspen forest. Other herders carved, but not with Paco’s precision, his anatomical correctness. Herders liked his art and as his fame spread locals from the Meeker area would seek out Paco’s trees, cut them down and save segments of aspens with his carvings on them. “They had a commercial value, and people would come and cut them and sell them in the newspaper,” says Mike Surber, a range management specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.

HHHChacon signed his work so the trees were easy to identify. Some of his carvings on sandstone, his etched art, have been shot at, vandalized. The aspen trees he carved would have fallen anyway. Aspens only live a century at most, but I think his carvings belonged in the forest to die a natural death. Unlike rock art such as petroglyphs or pictograms carved or painted on stone, there are no cultural rules about protecting aspen art.

I’ve found his name and dates etched on aspen, but I’ve never seen his carved portraits in the forest though I’ve looked across the Flat Tops and the White River Plateau. He did his art for himself, for his fellow herders, but his work is now in people’s living rooms, barns or basements, the trees dismembered, the artist passed on.

At the White River Museum in Meeker, artifacts attest to sheepherders’ lives. In the back room, a painted sheepwagon has an elaborate carved wooden door with a handle made from horn and a shepherd’s crook attached to the wagon. Old milk cans threaded on stiff wire resemble a large tambourine. Called “tin dogs,” herders shook the wire ring to keep sheep moving down a trail. In the back, against the wall, in a glass case, is the hide and head of a snarling wolf, his pelt dusty, his teeth yellow. He was the last wolf killed in Rio Blanco County. He stares out with glass eyes. Beside him on the concrete floor is a segment of an aspen tree with a Pacomio Chacon carving from the Dick Moyer collection.

HHHThe white bark ages and fades. A pretty woman with full lips looks straight ahead, one eye larger than another as in a Picasso drawing. She wears a tight blouse that shows her feminine figure. Unlike other Chacon women, this girl, hair in bangs and down her back, does not seem to smile. She looks off to one side, a crack in the bark now creating a line across her forehead. Like the wolf pelt, she is an artifact out of place, out of time. Wolves are missing from the forest and the work of herder and folk artist Pacomio Chacon is gone from the forest, too.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at