“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere,” says Anton Ego, the gloomy food critic from Ratatouille. In the movie, a rat proves to a baffled kitchen staff that despite his size and, well, rat-ness, he is a truly gifted chef. That’s all fine and good for a kid’s movie, but animals becoming artists just doesn’t happen in real life…Or so we thought.
As it turns out, a paintbrush and inflated ego does not an artist make. In fact, some of the most highly sought after art pieces were formed by the least egotistical artists the world has ever seen. What began as a small-town joke has transformed into an international artistic event, and all because one man saw art where another probably saw garbage.
Baker City, Oregon, is a place that people once flocked towards in hopes of striking it rich. Now, it’s certainly a center of wealth…just not the kind of wealth those eager miners had in mind all those years ago.
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“Wealth” doesn’t only apply to money, though Whit Deschner has certainly seen his fair share of riches over the past 13 years. No, in Whit’s case, “wealth” has everything to do with art — and the unlikely place he discovered it.
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Whit himself doesn’t exactly scream “art connoisseur” at first glance: He’s a retired fisherman and spends most of his time with farmers and ranchers. But beneath the denim and flannel beats the heart of an artist…
Or, at least, the heart of someone who knows unique art when he sees it. He retired from his day-to-day job to become a writer and photographer, which lead him to discovering his art somewhere totally unexpected.
“I was at my friend’s cabin, and he had a salt lick out back for the deer,” Whit said. It was the 50-pound square block that got his creative juices flowing — that, and a deer’s tongue.
“The deer had sculpted the block with their tongues and I made a comment about how it looked a lot like the modern art you see in major cities,” Whit explained. Thus, The Great Salt Lick Contest was born.
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Whit’s idea was simple: He would hold an annual contest in which anyone could enter the salt lick “sculptures” inadvertently created by their grazing livestock. Cows, horses, deer, goats, sheep — all fair game. And as with most contests, there was a catch.
In order to be entered into the contests, it was required that all sculptures be created solely by an animal — no human tampering allowed! From there, the quirky contest started to take shape.
Whit went door to door, advertising his contest to small businesses and neighbors alike. He ended up with 30 completed salt licks on his doorstep, all from excited local ranchers looking to win a couple bucks…
Nowadays, he gets submissions from all over the world. Over time, Whit has had to expand everything about the contest, from the number of accepted submissions to the variety of categories — which have only gotten stranger.
One of the more esteemed categories is the “most artistically licked block,” but some of the other categories reflect just how popular the contest has become. For example, the “forgeries” category touches on one of Whit’s biggest problems with the contest.
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“People can’t lick the blocks themselves, or else I’ll take DNA samples and I won’t let them participate again,” Whit said, laughing. In actuality, Whit has developed something of a superpower when it comes to determining the authenticity of the sculptures.
He’s developed such a keen eye for salt lick art that he can guess which kind of animal created which sculpture. “Deer and sheep, they’re very much realists,” he said. “Cows are more impressionists.” Horses, according to Whit, aren’t always as nuanced.
“Horses have no sense of art whatsoever,” he said. It’s the size of the rivets and whorls left by the tongue that tells him which animal created which sculpture. “Cows have a really broad brush to work with,” he explained.
Whit chooses his panel of judges very carefully. “One year I recruited candidates running for local judge, and another year it was all city council members,” he said. They had the honor of choosing winners from all sorts of other unique categories…
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One of the most special categories is the “Michael J. Fox Look Alike Block,” a nod to an issue close to Whit’s heart: Whit has Parkinson’s disease, and every cent he makes through the contest is given to Parkinson’s research.
It’s true that Whit has seen his fair share of riches: Since Whit held the first annual Great Salt Lick Contest, he has raised over $150,000 for Parkinson’s research, an astounding number for what began as a small town art contest!
The contestants, too, can earn a hefty sum with their oddly-shaped salt blocks. Cash prizes go up to $150, and one year, the grand prize winner at auction fetched $1,800. To most, the sculptures are more than just money-makers, though…
“The first piece my cattle made I still have displayed in my office,” said Dan Warnock, a local rancher. “It…is a really interesting conversation piece.” What’s more, the contest hasn’t only caught the eyes of local ranchers.
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Completed salt lick sculptures have been displayed at the Guggenheim Gallery in California in addition to other prominent art museums in the U.S. and Canada. Now, Baker City is known for more than just its old-school gold rush days…
In 2014, the town installed a bronze sculpture of a carved salt lick on Main Street in honor of the yearly event, which Whit sees as a unifying gesture. “[The contest] brings everyone together,” he said, “Whether they’re cowboys or artists.”
This was the line of thinking a Chinese village used over 70 years ago, when officials started what would be known as the Crab Harvest Festival. There, every September and October, fisherman gather at Hongze Lake to celebrate in the strangest — yet most artistic — way.
See, the lake teems with hairy crabs — also known as mitten crabs — which are named for that little patch of fuzz hanging out around their pincers. Ask anyone in China’s Yangtze River Delta region, and they’ll say crabs from Hongze Lake taste best.
So, nets in hand, fisherman of all ages and sexes paddle out to the heart of the lake in late summer and early autumn, hoping to score a big catch. If they do their jobs right, they’re looking at huge paydays.
Over the decades, the fisherman honed the craft of pulling these crabs out of the water. In 2016, the anglers of Hongze county netted about 6,600 tons of ’em, most of which ended up on someone’s dinner plate. Local government officials, though, saw a conflict.
See, just about every lake in China claimed their mitten crabs tasted the best. Anglers at Yangcheng Lake, for instance, received over 200,000 hairy crab pre-orders in 2017 before fishing season even began! Those were crabs not being bought from Hongze county fisherman.
Even several decades earlier, Hongze officials sensed this looming crab war on the horizon. That’s why, about 70 years ago, they put their heads together, brainstorming ways to make buyers choose their crabs over others.
Officials, fisherman, and citizens already celebrated crab season every year with the Hongze Lake Harvest Festival. There, people got together and cheerfully celebrated the demise of a few million crustacean. But it wasn’t enough.
Festivals attracted locals, sure, but celebrations of the sort weren’t likely to attract buyers from other regions. No, if Hongze county wanted to sell more crabs, then officials were going to have to get creative — and they did.
To get word of their crabs to spread, officials knew — especially decades before the internet — they needed to create something that left festival participants’ jaws on the floor. Something that would spread to places like Beijing.
After what was likely a long and very strange debate, Hongze officials emerged from their conversations with a plan to make the Hongze Lake Harvest Festival one of the most talked about events of the year. Everything they needed to do so lived in the lake.
The plan was to show off Hongze Lake’s mitten crabs, but in a way that buyers had never seen before. When the celebration finally arrived that year, it became clear to officials that their scheming would pay off.
Buyers gawked as festival patrons marched out crabs dressed in some of the time’s hottest fashions. Fabrics and paint adorned these crabs, who were now the sauciest animals in the Orient. The effects on crab purchasing were immediate.
That’s why, nearly a century later, the most celebrated event of the Hongze Lake Harvest Festival is the Crab Fashion Show. More or less a decoration contest, upwards of 150 people present their little fashionistas annually.
Of course, times have changed since the Crab Fashion Show began. While crabs were once carried to the crabwalk by contestants, in 2019, they arrived to the show in fashion, strapped to a fancy drone. Best of all, the crabs have incentive to participate.
Because the Chinese consider it bad luck — and probably rude in a weird kind of way — to eat the models that brought them joy, any crab involved in the fashion show gets one year immunity: it can’t be sold or killed for 365 days.
Every crab flaunts a different fashion style. This crab, for instance, rocked a lime-green floral design, which boasted bright pink flowers, too. Did amazing brush work turn this crab’s shell into the blueprint for 2020’s next fashion craze?
Other participants opted to give their crabs a more pop-culture pizazz. Donning a snazzy silver bow-tie, this crab posed alongside a famous Japanese cartoon character called Totoro, a forest spirit that’s part raccoon, part cat.
And of course, some crabs pay homage to the arts. This guy wore a tiny, Cantonese opera crown! The presenter had great respect for his crustacean, as he spent a lot of time adjusting its ribbons, making sure it looked just right.
Though buyers now get their crabs digitally — there’s no need to physically travel to each individual lake for supply anymore — the Crab Fashion Show isn’t going anywhere. It’s become a community staple.
Luckily, once the fun ends at the end of crab catching season, the people of China don’t have to go far for their next festival fix. A short trip to Harbin will let them see brave workers carrying blocks of ice across a frozen lake for a wild purpose.
Annually, locals watch workers brave enough to step upon the large body of frozen-over water bring a small machine that didn’t seem to make their movements any safer — because it cuts into the ice!
Over the next few weeks, more and more workers haul off entire blocks of ice. Eventually, they gather and transport nearly 200,000 cubic meters of ice. The blocks weighed up to 1,545 pounds (700 kilograms) each.
Slowly but surely, all of the massive ice cubes are hauled to Zhaolin Park, where they were awaited by more workers and even a few dozen artists who were eager to get their hands on the 1,500 lb bricks.
They built for the 35th time the annual Harbin International Ice And Snow Sculpture Festival, which in 2019 was set to amaze millions of visitors, both local and foreign.
This annual celebration started as the Ice Lantern Garden Party, during which local artists displayed lanterns out of similar hollowed-out ice blocks; today, that is only one feature of the widely celebrated festivities…
The festival features several different attractions, including an army of snowmen, a handful of athletic competitions, light shows and fireworks, and the Ice and Snow World.
While the Ice and Snow World didn’t open until early January, those who came early could enjoy the other festival features, and make friends with the snowmen or enjoy some other sights.
When built, the Ice and Snow World took up over 600,000 square meters and included more than 100 landmarks. It was made from 110,000 cubic meters of ice and 120,000 cubic meters of snow. Remember how heavy each brick was?
The heavy building materials weren’t the only challenge to those in charge of the sculptors: Located in Northeast China, Harbin receives cold winter wind from Siberia. The average temperature is 1.8 °F in winter, with lows of –31 °F not being uncommon.
Still tourists brave the cold and come all the way out to see the spectacle. Sculptors from 12 different countries spend weeks perfecting their works to compete in the sculpt-off and to blow everybody’s minds.
The opening of this festival of wonders included a fireworks show and — shockingly — an outdoor swimming competition in the ice cold water. Brrr, can you imagine?
Perhaps this competition was better left to the VIP visitors of the festival this year: 6 Gentoo penguins who showed up wearing tiny backpacks seemed to be exactly in their element among the frigid temperatures and the heaps of ice and snow.
The adorable and friendly birds were invited and brought in by a nearby aquarium to rush down the slides, enjoy the sights, and maybe even make some new friends. Don’t worry, they were well looked after and seemed to have a jolly good time.
As the days passed, the Ice And Snow World offered an array of breath-taking activities for its visitors. In fact, those who were feeling adventurous could enjoy the thousand-foot-long Northern Lights-themed ice slides.
At night, the festival held light shows that made every sculpture glisten, glow, and sparkle, including the exquisite snow Buddha statue, which was made of more than 15,000 square cubic feet of snow.
The brightly lit sculptures are for more than just oohs and ahhs, too: you can actually go inside some or get an up-close look at all of the craftsmanship that went into others.
Bright lights and jaw-dropping sculptures may bring most lovebirds to the festival, but some stay for the mass wedding ceremony Harbin offers. Braving the cold, these couples tie the knot with fur coats over their suits and dresses.
The Harbin festival is now considered one of the world’s top winter festivals, joining the ranks of Canada’s Quebec Winter Carnival, Norway’s Holmenkollen Ski Festival, and the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan (pictured below).
The Harbin Ice And Snow Festival ends in early February, but if the weather permitted it, the fun could last much longer. Would you brave the freezing cold to partake in this spectacle?
Conversely, would you brave scalding hot temps for an outdoor festival so unique and mind-bending that it overwhelmed all of your senses and left you in a state of ethereal bliss? You have if you’ve been to Burning Man.
This vibrant cornucopia of art, expression, and epic bonfires started in 1986 by a man named Larry Harvey and a small group of his friends. They would gather once a year in the desert of Nevada to let inhibitions go and celebrate life.
Over the years, more and more people jumped on board the idea of spending a week in the desert at the anything-goes event, and now tens of thousands of people from all over flock there to let their freak flags fly.
Just look at what happens to this section of barren desert! An entire town literally pops up out of nowhere and thrives for one week. The “city” is named Black Rock City, and bizarre stuff happens all week long — but how bizarre are we talking?
One of the first things visitors notice after they arrive are the messages of positivity scattered throughout the playa, which is the name of the sand-covered expanse. Only good vibes are allowed, and everyone who comes is strongly encouraged to bond with each other like family.
Those good vibes even extend to souvenirs: Money only buys ice and coffee at this festival; everything else people acquire must be gifted from another attendee. This only encourages goodwill and love.
While some people might be looking to meet like-minded friends, others go just to soak in the colorful personalities at the festival. They want glimpses into the minds of some of the world’s most boisterous people.
Because even if you’d never attended Burning Man before, it wouldn’t take much exploring to quickly realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. Unique personalities populate the desert landscape.
As awesome as all the people are, you can’t go more than a few minutes without setting your eyes on the brilliant pieces of artwork throughout Black Rock City. Professionals spend all year crafting them specifically for Burning Man.
Some of that artwork doesn’t even make it out of the festival! Just look at this epic piece. This looks a bit dangerous, sure, but there’s no need to fear. Over 2,000 volunteers, including firefighters, take part in the festivities, ensuring the safety of everyone around.
Many of the sculptures are designed to glow at night, or have the sun reflect off of them in amazing ways, illuminating the already mind-blowing designs. How long do you think it took to build this suave guy?
This sculpture was called “Love,” and it depicts the inner child of both the adults trying to connect, even though they’re upset. Deep meaningful art like this is one of the reasons people return year after year.
To get around such a large area of land and see all the sculptures and dazzling displays of creativity, festival goers rent bikes. Elaborately dressed attendees embracing their inner spirits decorate their two-wheeled vehicles so no one else accidentally rides off with it!
And although Burning Man takes place in the desert, and daytime temperatures can swelter, the nights can actually drop below freezing. However, just because the moon is out doesn’t mean the absolute mayhem stops…
Once the sun dips down, people throw on some heavier clothing and venture back out into the heart of Black Rock City. There are games, shows, bonfires, and thousands of people looking to make lifelong memories. Fire-blasting skee ball anyone?
Burning Man aims to tingle every one of your cosmic senses, and it does so in elaborate displays of never-ending psychedelic visuals. There is never any minute of the day you can’t venture out and find something that will leave you in awe.
Still, it wouldn’t be a festival without some music to dance to until your feet fall off. DJs from all over set up their equipment for all-night raves. You can pretty much kiss sleep goodbye at Burning Man — but that’s to be expected.
The final event of the seven-day carnival of weird is what gives the entire Burning Man festival its name. People write messages to lost loved ones and then add their notes to an elaborate wooden temple.
Finally, in the darkness on the festival’s final night, tens of thousands of people gather at the wooden temple topped with a timber man. With the messages to loved ones still inside it, it’s set on fire. People gaze in awe as flames as tall as buildings lick the sky while the wooden man burns.
Burning Man can definitely be an intense experience if you’re not ready. But, for those who choose to embrace the weirdness and organized chaos, it’s something they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives. So what do you say — are you in?
Festivals don’t end with Burning Man and the Harbin Festival, however. Every country has their own brilliant celebrations. See, the La Tomatina Festiva in Bunyol, Spain: Since 1945, tens of thousands of participants gather in the streets to throw tomatoes at each other. For what reason? None at all. This annual event — dubbed the world’s largest food fight — is held for pure entertainment.
Winter Scareaway Festival (Mohácsi Busójárás, Hungary): This Hungarian tradition involves people dressing in scary costumes in the hopes of scaring away the impending cold weather. The idea draws from a 1526 victory where villagers dressed as monsters to scare off an invading Turkish army.
Yi Peng Lantern Festival (Thailand): The festival is held annually in Thailand and the surrounding countries with strong Thai roots. Festival-goers light thousands of paper lanterns and release them into the sky. It represents letting go of negative energy and making room for well wishes and the positive energy to come.
El Colacho (Baby Jumping) (Spain): Every year in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain, in celebration of the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, newborn babies are lined up and placed on mattresses. They are sprinkled with petals and confetti, and then men in yellow and red jump over them. It’s said to cleanse the newborns from original sin.
Holi Color Festival (India): Every spring, to mark the end of winter, bright and colorful powder fills the streets, and people throw it at one another. This represents the triumph of good over evil, and is based on a Hindu god, Krishna. She loved to play pranks and would splash water and color onto village girls.
International Highline Meeting Festival (Monte Piana, Italy): People from all over the world gather here with fellow “slackers” to spend their day suspended over the dolomite Alps on a slackline. They walk on the slackline and set up their hammocks, where they chill with other adventure junkies and enjoy the breathtaking view.
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Dia De Los Muertos Festival (Mexico): This 500-year-old tradition translates to Day of the Dead. The three-day festival — usually held in cemeteries — celebrates family members and loved ones that have passed away. Families display altars with the favorite foods and items of their deceased loved ones, encouraging them to visit so they can hear their family’s prayers.
Golden Retriever Festival (Scotland): Golden Retrievers hail from the rolling hills of Scotland, and in the summer of 2006, hundreds of Golden Retrievers from all around traveled to their motherland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Golden Retriever Club of Scotland. Owners loved this so much they have since made it an annual gathering.
Songkran Water Festival (Thailand): During the early spring (April 13-15), Thailand breaks out into a massive water fight. The origin of this tradition stems from a time when Thai people washed their homes to cleanse themselves from the past year’s energy. Nowadays, it’s more of a fun festival — and way to beat the heat.
The Monkey Buffet Festival (Lopburi Province, Thailand): Every November, villagers lay food out for the monkeys in the area to enjoy a free meal. It is believed to have started as a way to honor the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. The extra tourism the festival brings is just an added bonus.
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Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Festival (England): Every year in Gloucester, people gather to a very steep incline known as Cooper’s Hill. The whole point of the contest is to chase a cheese wheel down the massive hill. Whoever crosses the finish line first gets to keep said cheese wheel as a victory prize. The rest usually end up at the hospital.
Moose Dropping Festival (Talkeetna, Alaska): The festival celebrates exactly what you think it does… moose excrement. The small village holds a festival to celebrate the moose by turning their fecal matter into trinkets, like jewelry, and dropping it out of hot air balloons in an attempt to hit a target.
Boryeong Mud Festival (Boryeong, South Korea): This tradition originally started out as a marketing stunt produced by a make-up company to advertise the mineral mud used in their product. People in the area loved it so much they made it into an annual event.
Coney Island Mermaid Parade (Brooklyn, United States): This massive gathering takes place annually on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice. The parade celebrates the start of summer and heavily encourages individuality. Thousands of people participate in the parade each year.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (United States): The festival takes place over nine days in early October. The world’s largest balloon festival, over 500 hot air balloons — in various colors and shaped like famous characters — annually take to the skies.
Ágitagueda Art Festival (Ágitagueda, Portugal): This creative festival used to celebrate the diverse landscape of Ágitagueda and has been around for just about a decade. Each year, people hang colorful umbrellas all over town during the duration of the festival.
Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme (Las Nieves, Spain): The festival is held in honor of Saint Marta de Ribarteme, the saint of resurrection. People who lived through a near-death experience during the past year are paraded around the streets in a coffin to show their gratitude for having another chance at life.
Puli Kali Festival (India): The tiger festival dates back to about 200 years ago. It features recreational folk art where artists dress up as tigers and hunters and perform a dance called the “Play of the Tigers.” It takes place during the Onam, an annual harvest festival celebrated in the Indian state of Kerala.
Las Fallas de Valencia (Spain): This tradition was added to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list several years back, and it celebrates the commemoration of Saint Joseph. Each neighborhood creates a monument that is eventually burned in the festivities. Falles refers to the burning of monuments during the celebrations.
Finally, Els Enfarinats (Alicante, Spain): This 200-year-old tradition takes place on December 28 each year to celebrate the Day of the Innocents. People take part in a mock battle between the married men, “Els Enfarinats,” and the group trying to restore order, “La Oposicio.” They fight by throwing flour and eggs at one another. At the end of the day, order is restored and any money raised is donated to charity.
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