Symbols in Sandstone
Tom Wesson is a long-time resident of Moab, Utah who has developed a technique for reproducing the ancient petroglyph designs – rock carvings – that are found on cliff faces and large boulders throughout the canyon country.
We first encountered Tom’s petroglyph art at the May 2004 Moab Art Walk, when he and his long-time friend and co- conspirator, the painter Serena Supplee, combined their work for the first time in a show at the Moonflower Gallery. Their show, called “Paper, Rock, and Petro”, combined ancient petroglyph designs carved by Tom into desert varnished natural sandstone, with original watercolor paintings from Serena’s “Visions” series. The result was a unique and powerful interpretation of the colors, textures, and ancient art forms of the canyon country.
Tom first became interested in petroglyphs while accompanying Serena on painting expeditions. They are both experienced river guides, and still spend a lot of time on the region’s rivers; many petroglyphs are found along the waterways. While Serena painted, Tom searched the walls and boulders for petroglyphs, recording those he found. He began to study what is known about these mysterious and powerful images, and the ancient Fremont and Anasazi cultures that created them. A craftsman himself, he became interested in how the images were made, and began to experiment with different techniques to create them on rocks he brought home.
Many of his first attempts ended up in local patios or walkways, but Tom has reached a high level of skill, and can reproduce an existing design that is virtually indistinguishable from the original. He also makes custom signs for local businesses (he made the rock at Dave’s Corner Market), as well as contemporary images from his own designs or from those provided by clients.
We realized we’d found yet another talented canyon country artist to add to the Moab Trading Post (our old online store that we built and ran from 2004-2007 while we lived in Moab), when we saw the works on display in the Moonflower Gallery show. Tom’s talent is gaining recognition by others as well, and his petroglyphs are starting to appear in art galleries and private collections across the southwest.
Willing to Work With Us
A veteran of both the Coast Guard and the National Park Service (he was a river ranger in Cataract Canyon), Tom first moved to Moab in 1979. Like Serena, he worked as a river guide for several years, and is now an independent contractor, working on numerous and varied projects throughout the Moab area. We finally had a chance to meet him in September, 2004, when Serena introduced us under the shady awning of her kitchen patio.
Tom was familiar with our store through Serena, and he was willing to work with us to create some petroglyphs for us to sell. I convinced him that I knew how to take care of myself in the desert – he said he’d had some really bad experiences in the past with people being stupid, and didn’t want to have to “babysit” anybody while looking for rocks. Finally he agreed to let me go along with him on his next rock-collecting expedition, so I could take photographs for the website and write this article.
Rock Hunting Expedition
After getting rained out and other delays, Tom and I headed out in his pickup truck on a clear day in late September, and I finally got the chance to learn first-hand just how much work and thought goes into collecting suitable rocks for petroglyph art.
First, we drove down the Potash road and collected rocks from several locations along the talus slopes at the foot of Poison Spider Mesa. It was a perfect day. The high cliffs towered overhead, the Colorado River at our feet reflected autumn reds and golds along its banks, and the La Sal mountain summits were brilliant with fresh snow against the deep blue sky.
The slopes were loose and steep, tumbled with rocks both large and small. The rocks represent almost the entire column of geologic strata found in canyon country, from the ancient Permian layers on the bottom at the Moab Fault line, to the Wingate sandstone on top.
As we worked their way up and down the loose talus, carefully avoiding the cryptobiotic crust, Tom explained to me what he was looking for, and the ethic he practices during his search.
Rock Criteria. Tom looks for rocks that have at least one good flat surface that is covered in desert varnish. The varnish needs to be thick enough for the design to be clearly visible, but not so thick that the design will not go through to the lighter rock underneath. The rock must be able to stand well. It can’t be too big or too heavy to carry – 70 lbs is his upper limit. The most popular color is the Wingate sandstone. The rock can’t be buried too deeply, because removing it would cause too much destruction to the cryptobiotic crust, and the rock will probably be unusable anyway because of the ugly dirt scar where it was buried.
Rock Ethics. Tom practices a strict low-impact ethic when he collects rocks. He is very careful not to take too many from one location, saying that it’s “good juju or good karma or whatever” to leave behind rocks that fit his criteria perfectly. He is also careful not to take rocks that can be seen from any roads or trails, so as not to spoil others’ experience or enjoyment of the area. Since he can’t carry rocks for any great distance, they are removed from beautiful places that have already been disturbed by their proximity to the road, not from pristine wilderness.
Once he spotted a promising rock, Tom examined it more carefully, turning it this way and that to determine if it met all his criteria. If it was a “keeper”, he either carried it down to the truck right away, or left it for later retrieval. “Never carry a rock uphill” is another one of his rules. Although he has worked on many larger rocks, Tom focused on locating smaller ones on this trip. These were for the online store, and we wanted to keep the shipping costs to a minimum for this first batch.
I was able to keep up with Tom just fine, but he wouldn’t let me help carry any rocks. “We practice Truth In Journalism!” he said every time I offered. “You wanted to show people how I do this, well, this is how. I carry a lot of rocks down these talus slopes back to the truck.” And off he’d trot back down to the road, a rock or two tucked under each arm. He said that out of all the rocks he collects, he’s done well if 2/3 of them are good enough for carving. In spite of his care in selecting them, there is simply no way to tell how suitable the rocks actually are until he starts carving on them. Nothing is wasted however. The “duds” are good practice rocks for new designs, and can also be used in other projects.
Petroglyphs. We came to a group of big boulders, on which Tom said I could find real petroglyphs, but refused to say where, so I could have the fun of finding them on my own. I went looking, and I was thrilled when the figures came into focus and I realized what I was seeing – tucked low to the ground, beautiful and mysterious and awesome. Next, Tom drove us on down the Potash road through the Portal, to the pull-outs where the panels of petroglyphs can be seen high above the road.
Tom said some people discount these images because they’re right next to the road and the rock climbing, but they’re actually very important. He said this concentration of images lies in the middle of a canyon crossroads. Several major drainage systems come together on the Colorado River just below the Portal. These systems provide travel routes through the maze of canyonlands, connecting the Moab Valley with other regions to the west and south. People from the Basketmaker, Fremont, and Anasazi cultures traveled these routes, and left their petroglyphs (images that are chipped out of desert varnish), and pictographs (images that are painted) along the canyon walls.
High above the Colorado River
The last stop of the day was just off the bridge on Highway 191, between the Colorado River and the mouth of Courthouse Wash. We climbed up the very steep and loose talus to the base of the cliffs towering high above the river, and looked for rocks along the high shelf. Tom kept saying “Be careful, be careful!”. I used to rock climb, and I’m still more comfortable with high exposure than most people, but it really was a dangerous slope and we were both extremely careful. We collected several more suitable rocks – by that time I was getting pretty good at spotting them – and drove back to town with our treasures.
After Tom unloads the rocks he’s gathered, his routine is to set them up around the work area in his yard, and look at them for a week or two, and gradually decides which design to carve onto which rock. He has standing orders that he fills when he finds the right rock for the requested design. Otherwise, he contemplates the blank rocks and his image collection, until he arrives at the right feeling for each one.
He then sets aside an evening to work on his petroglyphs.
A week and a half after our rock expedition, Tom kept his promise and called us late one afternoon and said he was getting ready to work on his petroglyphs; I could come over and take photographs if I wanted to.
I arrived at Tom’s place just as the sun was setting behind the Portal. Tom had already sketched a number of images onto rocks, but we went through the reference books I’d brought and his own image collection, to select the remaining petroglyphs. Tom said to go with an immediate reaction of liking a design. “Don’t overthink it,” he said. I selected two “complete” images of Kokopelli as the fertility deity. Kokopelli has been somewhat sanitized during his commodification as an icon of southwestern kitsch. The Moab Trading Post has had several requests for the “real” Kokopelli (i.e., one with a prominent “member”), by people who want to give them as wedding gifts, or to encourage the bounty of their gardens. After I picked the images I wanted, Tom went to work.
As he set up his workbench, he told me that he began to understand and appreciate the craft and skill of the original petroglyph artists once he began to try to create the images himself. He said that he could tell whether an image had been created by a single individual or many, whether it had been created at one sitting or over a period of time, such as by a shaman returning to an image repeatedly. The originals were apparently created by dimpling the soft sandstone with antler tools or granite stones. The shelves above the rivers contain many water-polished rocks washed down from the ancestral Rocky Mountains long ago, which are perfect for this purpose.
Tom has developed a slightly different technique of his own, however.
First he sketches a rough outline of the image onto the rock, which he then sets up on his workbench. His petroglyph work area is set somewhat apart from all the other work tables, boats, tools, etc. that are scattered throughout the yard.
Tom employs a method similar to sand-blasting to create his art. After just a few minutes of carving, he was covered with fine black grit. Little drifts of it slid off his shoulders. Clouds of it billowed up and away in the light evening breeze, and I had to watch out for my camera.
He said he does not use silica, however. It’s harder to work with and doesn’t give him the results he wants. Instead, Tom uses an inert, non-toxic substance that is used in the production of steel: coke. There were bags of it lying in his storage room marked with the name of a steel mill in Indiana.
He wears an industrial safety face guard because the power blaster throws so much material around. “All the safety stuff’s taken care of,” he shouted through his faceplate over the noise of the blaster.
At first there was enough light for Tom to see by, but after a while the twilight deepened and he set up an industrial worklight on a stand by his bench. The generator sputtered along while Tom blasted away at his petroglyphs. He said that once he starts, he just keeps going for hours, long into the night.
It is a startlingly industrial process, but the results are petroglyph images that appear so much like the originals that Tom has to mark his work with his initials to prevent future confusion.
Working Under the Desert Twilight
Tom worked away on his images in the bright pool of artificial light in his yard at the foot of the cliffs near the Portal, beneath the stars coming out in the deep desert twilight. A long shooting star streaked over Canyonlands. Tom became more and more engrossed in his work. After tucking the Kokopellis into my car, I watched him work a few minutes longer, and then drove home with my treasures.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is This Legal?
Yes. This activity is completely legal. Although they may look authentic, these pieces of rock art are completely contemporary – they are not stolen antiquities.
Tom has a permit from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to collect rocks from public lands for commercial use. He is very strict about following their rules, and avoids private property and the National Park boundary lines by wide margins. His collecting ethic is even more restrictive than the official guidelines.
The images are not copyrighted. They are essentially in the public domain and available for all to use.
Some petroglyph images are still considered sacred by native peoples in the region, particularly the Navajo. Whenever he does a petroglyph based on a sacred image, Tom alters it sufficiently from the original to stay within the acceptable boundaries.
Is My Petroglyph Rock Safe?
Tom said that some people are concerned about having real rocks in their homes and gardens.
Yes, your rock is safe. These stones have been selected from the most beautiful places on earth – they’re sandstone, primarily from the Wingate and Chinle strata. The desert varnish is not dangerous. It is a layer of iron deposited by bacterial processes over a long period of time. Lichen, if present, is alive, but is also completely safe. The coke Tom uses to create the images is inert and non-toxic.
There is no danger posed by these rocks except perhaps if combined with gravity – don’t drop one on your foot! The only danger we’ve encountered is that of becoming too fond of them. We want to keep them all for ourselves!
How Do I Care for My Petroglyphs?
According to Tom, the desert varnish may fade somewhat, depending on the type of environment in which it is displayed. Twenty years ago he observed fresh rockfall of highly varnished rocks that have gradually faded since they fell from the cliff-faces. Keeping them out of direct weather may help extend the life of the varnish. However, the rocks eventually develop their own patina over time, and since the images are actually incised into the stone, they will not disappear.
So put your petroglyph rock in your garden and enjoy it for years to come. You can also keep it indoors, particularly if it is a thin delicate flake or a small rock; they add a unique touch of canyon country magic to any decor, indoors and out.
– Mary Ecsedy, 10/4/2010, Pittsburgh PA
(Originally published 2/24/2005, Moab Utah)