El Jebel blacksmith dreams big with metal mastodon
EL JEBEL – When master blacksmith Vaughn Shafer of El Jebel learned about the Ice Age fossil discoveries last year in Snowmass Village, he thought he found a project that his life has been steering him toward.Shafer took an interest in crafting replica animal skeletons out of metal in 1999, creating an elk first, then expanding his North American Animal series to include a grizzly bear, bighorn sheep and mountain lion. He didn’t just guess at the size and shape of the bones, or rely on models. He took precise measurements and made his skeleton scientifically accurate.”I’ve come up with a very meticulous process,” he said. “I’m considered now a metal taxidermist.”He later moved on to a project in which a replica saber-toothed cat skeleton was wrapped around a chopper motorcycle. He and two other blacksmiths teamed with a mechanic to create a bike that grabs attention wherever it goes, including the Sturgis Motorcyle Rally in South Dakota, the granddaddy of biker gatherings.He was drawn to the ice age beast well before the discovery in October 2010 of mastodons, giant sloths, bison and a variety of other amazing beasts at Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass Village. As soon as word of the discovery leaked, Shafer dreamed of creating a metal mastodon.”I’ve been practicing for 12 years,” he said, referring to his work with replica bones. “My wife and friends asked ‘why?'” Shafer never really knew why. Now he thinks it might have been “God-willed.”Shafer’s work has gotten an endorsement from no less of an authority than Kirk Johnson, vice president and chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which undertook the massive excavation of the Ice Age fossils in Snowmass Village.Johnson visited Shafer’s workshop in El Jebel several months ago while the dig in Snowmass was still under way. He eventually provided Shafer with a cast of a 32-inch-long front ulna from a mastodon. Shafer nailed the size and shape, and captured the most minute details in his metalwork, Johnson said.Johnson wants artists to be inspired by the mastodons and other ice age discoveries. He gets approached with lots of proposals.”There are quite a few fairly average mammoth sculptors out there,” he quipped.Shafer’s procedure puts him in a league of his own, according to Johnson. He believes Shafer could produce an amazingly accurate metal mastodon skeleton.”I’m convinced Vaughn has the skill set to do it,” Johnson said. “It would be done bone by bone, anatomically correct.”The museum would help by providing the blacksmith with access to the mastodon bones for measurements. No complete skeleton from one mastodon was discovered. Instead, bones were found from 30 to 50 animals, Johnson said. But with help from the museum staff, Shafer could get the measurements of the right bones to create a realistic skeleton.Shafer and his wife, Lori, visited Johnson at the museum Oct. 22 and saw the massive collection of bones. The craftsman was awestruck.Shafer said he could finish a skeleton in eight months, with the help of two other blacksmiths. An adult mastodon was roughly 22 feet long from tusks to tail and 18 feet tall. The metal bones would receive three layers of powder coating to give them a realistic look.He envisions his creation being displayed at Snowmass Village or elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley. “These things didn’t just roam in Snowmass,” he said.The advantage of their work is the metal mastodon could be erected outside rather than protected in a building. People could touch it, unlike the real bones or even casts.The cost of the metal mastodon Shafer envisions would be about $265,000. It’s uncertain at this point if Snowmass Village is interested in commissioning such a piece or if the museum has the funds to assist.”There are still some hoops to leap through,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to figure out what we should be doing,” he said of the museum staff.Meanwhile, a Snowmass Village committee is assessing what steps it wants to take to celebrate the Ice Age discoveries.One way or another, Johnson said, Shafer’s expertise should be utilized for a metal mastodon. It is fitting that a “true blacksmith” with a legitimate interest in Ice Age animals should help the valley memorialize the discoveries.”I just like the symmetry of the story and wish him success for that fact alone,” Johnson firstname.lastname@example.org
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