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The Shaman's Scribe

Artist Forrest Kirkland helped preserve Texas pictographs by trekking to remote sites and painting meticulous reproductions.

By E. Dan Klepper

On a dusty, sweltering morning in July of 1936, Forrest and Lula Kirkland began negotiating a descent into a little-known canyon within the Lower Pecos River country, a stomping ground for diamondbacks, cougars and prehistoric humans, who painted images of their supernatural world across the region's limestone shelters. The drop into Rattlesnake Canyon was so steep and problematic that Forrest "had to let his paint box down with a rope and climb down after it," Lula Kirkland recorded in her diary. "I followed him soon and having no rope I took along a pair of trousers, tied up the end of one leg, placed my camera outfit and our lunch in it, and while holding to one end I slid down the rocks."

The Kirklands had arrived at the lip of Rattlesnake Canyon using slightly less primitive means – by traveling over dirt roads in a 1936 Dodge sedan, kitted out with an ice chest and a chuck box attached to the running board and packed with a Coleman stove, a five-gallon container of drinking water, two cots and a mosquito bar. Should it happen to rain they had planned to sleep in the car.

It wasn't, however, the first time the Kirklands had ventured into the Texas outback this way. They tolerated these primitive conditions and their simple but sufficient accommodations each summer for seven years from 1934 to 1941 in order to access some of the most remote and significant prehistoric sites in Texas. But rather than engaging in archaeological excavations or collecting artifacts, the Kirklands spent their time producing a meticulously rendered visual record of Texas rock art. Using a precise scaling process Forrest had developed specifically for this purpose, the Kirklands created a stunning portfolio of accurate drawings and watercolors that recorded the most elaborate and mysterious paintings of some of the earliest known Texans.

"The pictures in this canyon," Lula wrote of their Rattlesnake Canyon subjects, "were on the back wall of a small grotto-like shelter. A beautiful mural of Indian designs interwoven with their representation of the human figure in costumes. It was dimmed by the many years of sun and wind action but had not been mutilated by white man and with study, Forrest was able to get all the designs."

It would take several days for the Kirklands to reproduce the Rattlesnake Canyon rock art.

"This intricate group of pictographs," Forrest wrote in his notes that accompanied the watercolors, "is in a small shelter in the east wall of Rattlesnake Canyon near its mouth. High above the flood level of the canyon, the shelter is about forty yards long and twenty feet deep. The paintings begin about four feet from the floor and extend well up on the ceiling to a height of eight feet. Instead of copying the pictographs in their present dim colors an attempt was made to use the original colors. This made it possible to follow each design even where there is much superimposition."

This superimposition dominates the Rattlesnake Canyon site, but it didn't prevent Forrest from producing a detailed representation of its complexity. An entire vocabulary of layered shaman figures, albeit a vocabulary that remains an enigma, covers the shelter walls. Bird-like figures, animalistic shamans with arms outstretched, horned shamans grasping serpent staffs, and an animation of tiny catapulting shamans are just a few of the myriad anthropomorphic beings that populate the Rattlesnake Canyon shelter. Possessed with a draftsman's skill and the patience of Job, Forrest – with Lula's assistance – carefully reproduced the shaman clusters onto his watercolor paper until every figure along with each abstract squiggle, zigzag and spiral had been captured.

Later that afternoon, as Forrest concentrated on replicating the wall of shamans, Lula noticed a heavy rainstorm approaching the canyon. Rattlesnake Canyon and the Lower Pecos River country lie within the state's southwest badlands, an arid and desolate landscape broken only by the Devils, Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers and riddled with scoured draws. Rainstorms are often sudden and severe, showering the rocky flats with tremendous amounts of water in short, intense periods of rainfall. Sheets of water roll into the canyons and often fill the draws with flash floods.

"I tried to let Forrest know about it," Lula wrote. "I had returned to the car ahead of him when I saw the rainstorm coming. It seemed to have been raining some time on the draws at the head of the canyon so I feared it might get up and Forrest would be marooned in the shelter. Did you ever see an ocatillo?" Lula, meaning ocotillo, asks from the pages of her diary.

"If you have, you can imagine what a predicament I found myself in when I tried to run through a thicket of them in a high wind," she writes. "It has the appearance of a bunch of almost straight canes, studded the entire length with half-inch or longer thorns. In a high wind they where whipping around in all directions and since they grew only a few feet apart, in places it was difficult to walk through them. I tried running through."

The Kirklands sacrificed more than just a bit of blood and creature comforts in order to record the rock art of Texas. Forrest gave up his first wife, Sadie, and their two children just before pursuing his lifelong avocation with Lula.

"According to my mother," reveals Forrest's grandson Elroy Christenson, "Forrest took a romantic notion that having family encumbrances was damaging to his being an artist. In fact I saw little evidence of it limiting his artistic activities from photos that I have of their various travels to Galveston, Arkansas and around Texas. The family probably was unwanted baggage."

Forrest abandoned Sadie and married Lula, his secretary of four years, shortly after Sadie divorced him. "Lula was very supportive and I believe worked closely with him helping to take notes while he did the illustrations," Christenson explains. "That was probably the kind of devotion that Sadie wouldn't or couldn't give him."

Forrest Kirkland's personal life – coupling a passion for art with self-serving behavior – is a drama that has been performed by artists for centuries. The art world is rife with obsession and abandonment. But regardless of his personal decisions, Forrest Kirkland's contribution to the preservation of some of the most fragile and transitory evidence of Texas' ancient past is undeniable. Forrest, a businessman with an advertising-art studio based in Dallas, put in 12- and 14-hour days to make his business successful. His vacations, when he took them, were devoted exclusively to visiting and recording rock art sites.

Lula accompanied him on every foray. She was a trained artist, having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at one time also worked in the commercial art industry. In fact, many of the pictographic reproductions Forrest created could not have been accomplished without Lula's help. She was his companion, photographic chronicler, camp cook, driver, artist's assistant and preliminary draftsman.

Considering the task at hand, Forrest needed the help. The locations of rock art sites across Texas were not well known and were extremely difficult to access in the 1930s, much as they still are today. The Kirklands required landowners and archaeologists to assist them in locating and accessing shelters that had, for the most part, remained hidden from the rest of the world for centuries. The richest source of rock art in Texas (where the Kirklands did much of their work), the Lower Pecos River country, was as rugged as it was isolated. In fact, anthropologists believe that this isolation assisted the Lower Pecos people in developing a unique form of expression exclusive to the region.

"The consensus that the Pecos River style was conceived and developed locally," writes Texas anthropologist Solveig A. Turpin, "probably sometime between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago and most definitely during the Archaic period, provides an archaeological context that in turn helps to explain its ontogeny from a sociological perspective. The production of monumental religious art and, by extension, the importance of ritual that it implies, coincide with a strong trend toward regionalization, a separateness that defines the Lower Pecos region as a cultural entity."

Monumental and ritualistic are ideal adjectives to describe much of the Texas rock art identified as the Pecos River style. Many of the murals are large and elaborate, spreading across entire shelters that could accommodate dozens of people. The rock faces are populated with magical polychrome beings and intricate abstractions that appear to codify a world familiar with the natural elements of humans, birds, reptiles, insects and animals yet remarkably otherworldly in their actions. The Kirklands painstakingly reproduced the images found at many of these most important sites, and their work can be said to have greatly influenced the earliest efforts taken to preserve and protect them.

The Kirklands' permanent record has also provided a body of work that can be studied in hand, thus furthering attempts to understand just exactly what these paintings are about. While a definitive comprehension of the iconography of the Lower Pecos River rock art will always remain elusive, anthropologists are now able to provide a general consensus.

"For reasons still arguable," Turpin explains, "sometime around 4,000 years ago, the cultural trajectory of the Pecos River people deviated from its generalist path, turning inward to develop its own regionalized social identity. It is surely more than coincidental that this cultural coalescence is accompanied by a trio of inferred activities whose sum is much larger than its parts: intensification of ritual, reproduction of monumental art, and promotion of shamanistic beliefs in that art. The complex relationship between flight metaphors, ritual art, out-of-body experiences, trance or ecstatic states, and shamanism developed in the context of demographic and sociocultural change. Whether innovative or reactionary, for a time, the organizing principle of Lower Pecos society was apparently religious tradition, with all the ramifications for history, science, and politics inherent in a unified belief system."

Forrest justified his unflagging pursuit of documenting the rock art of Texas with a desire to preserve it. After witnessing his first pictograph site in 1933, a place called Paint Rock above the Concho River, Forrest made the most important decision in his life.

"We didn't make a careful survey of the complete group of paintings while we were there, but only a casual inspection showed they were badly weathered," Forrest wrote. "Some had been injured by sightseers and many of them had been totally destroyed by ruthless vandals. Here was a veritable gallery of primitive art at the mercy of the elements and the hand of a destructive people. In a few more years only the hundreds of deeply carved names and smears of modern paint will remain to mark the site of the paintings left by the Indians. I am a trained artist able to make accurate copies of these Indian paintings. I should save them from total ruin. So it was definitely decided that we would drop everything at the first slack season of the summer and go to Paint Rock to copy the paintings."

Paint Rock was the first of over 80 sites the Kirklands would visit and record. A number of these sites eventually came under the protection of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, including the Fate Bell Shelter of Seminole Canyon State Park and the hundreds of pictographs at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site. Other sites remain in private hands, but the Rock Art Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to the preservation and study of the rock art of the Lower Pecos region, collaborates with owners to conserve and protect many of these sites. Still others located along the Rio Grande River were lost to the waters of Amistad Reservoir and can only be seen in the Kirkland watercolors.

But a closer examination of Forrest's impeccable attention to detail and thoroughness on behalf of an art that describes transmogrification and out-of-body experience as its defining elements might suggest that perhaps there was more to his obsession than just the preservation of rock art.

"Forrest came from a family of 'true believers' and preachers," Christenson explains. "He himself went to study to become a minister."

There is something undeniably transcendent about the elaborate shaman paintings that can be found throughout the Lower Pecos River sites. Forrest may have embraced these transcendental properties, evident in the mental clarity achieved in the painting of the pictographs themselves; spending hours narrowing his focus and then carefully reproducing each line, plane, curve and stroke of the ancients. It is, in and of itself, an act of meditation at its zenith; in art it is a practice formalized by the ancient Chinese Sumi-e and invigorated by the modern abstract expressionists.

Lula, in fact, had it wrong when she suggested that the Rattlesnake Canyon shamans were "their representation of the human figure in costumes." There are no costumes here. The Pecos River pictographs capture a world defined only by its lack of boundaries, where creativity reigns and the mind revels in a universe of possibilities. The shamans represent humans transformed; creatures at play in a charged, supernatural reality attained by the simplest of measures - imagination.

It comes as no surprise that a creative and dedicated draftsman like Forrest Kirkland should devote his life to transcribing the iconography of this world. The authority to harness the limitless power of the imagination is not only the prerogative of the shaman, it is also the realm of the artist.

Where to see the rock art of Texas

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site

  • West of Comstock on U.S. Highway 90. Tours of Fate Bell Shelter, a well-preserved Pecos River Style site with spectacular shamans. (432-292-4464, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/seminolecanyon).

Paint Rock

  • The site is just north and west of the town of Paint Rock along the Concho River. Paint Rock is on private property, but ranchers Kay and Fred Campbell offer tours. (325-732-4376, www.paintrockpictographs.com).

Devils River State Natural Area

  • From Del Rio, north on SH 277 for 45 miles then west on Dolan Creek Road for 18.6 miles. Tours of Lower Pecos Rivers style pictographs available. (830-395-2133, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/devilsriver).

Big Bend Ranch State Park

  • West of Lajitas along FM 170. Transitional-style pictographs can be seen alongside the Sauceda Ranch Road at the Las Cuevas Amarillos interpretive pull-out. Tours can also be arranged to see some of the more remote pictographic sites. (432-358-4444, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/bigbendranch).

Hueco Tanks State Historic Site

  • Thirty-two miles northeast of El Paso on U.S. Highway 62/180 and north on RR 2775. A stunning array of masks, figures and abstractions in various styles. Tours available, but with reservation only and restrictions. (915-857-1135, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huecotanks).

Rock Art Foundation

  • This nonprofit group promotes the conservation and study of rock art in the Lower Pecos region. Though it's based in San Antonio, the organization owns and maintains one of the finest Pecos River Style sites known - the White Shaman shelter. It is located west of Comstock on U.S. Highway 90 and offers White Shaman tours every Saturday at 12:30 p.m., September through May. A tour calendar offers guided access to a number of remote sites, including several of the Kirklands' destinations, year-round (888-762-5278, www.rockart.org).

Books on rock art:

  • Shamanism and Rock Art in North America, published by the Rock Art Foundation.
  • Reproductions of the Kirklands' watercolors and drawings can be seen in W. W. Newcomb Jr.'s The Rock Art of Texas Indians, University of Texas Press.

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