Welcome to Elk Jebel — blacksmith, sculptor collaborate on signature art for area | AspenTimes.com

Welcome to Elk Jebel — blacksmith, sculptor collaborate on signature art for area

El Jebel will soon have some more eye-catching elk roaming around.

The unincorporated area already has a resident herd of domestic elk being raised by the Crawford family. The magnificent animals hang out in the meadows at the base of Missouri Heights.

By fall, some equally majestic metal elk will be placed in the center of the new roundabout in El Jebel Road. The Crawford family commissioned the elk art from blacksmith Vaughn Shafer.

Shafer, a third-generation blacksmith who has worked out of a workshop in El Jebel for 31 years, enlisted sculptor Thomas Barlow for help on the special project. They are creating a bull and cow elk with a calf.

"The Crawfords have given me the opportunity to do it a little differently," Shafer said.

Instead of creating a mold and working in bronze — a process that would allow multiple productions — they are working with metal to handcraft one-of-a-kind beasts.

They are using three-quarter-inch metal piping to form the "skeletons," or frames, of the three elk. They use a plasma cutter to cut out iPhone-sized pieces of metal from 4-by-8 feet sheets. Then they pound the hell out of the cold pieces while they are positioned on an anvil or cradled in a massive tree stump with a bowl-shaped top.

"There's a lot of old-school stuff we're doing," Shafer said.

Shafer and Barlow find the proper places to fit the pieces on the frame and snug them in with a bit more hammering.

"It's almost like stitching a quilt once we have a few pieces on," Shafer said.

Stop by Shafer's blacksmith shop, a short distance from the bowling alley, on any given day and chances are sparks will be flying. After they find the perfect spot for a metal piece, Shafer welds it into place. Barlow follows up with a grinder to smooth the weld.

Shafer wanted to collaborate with Barlow to get the sculptor's eye for muscle structure and the sense of movement in the pieces. They have an elk model, used for target practice, to help capture the right appearance. They also have had some veteran hunters stop by to offer advice.

The torsos of the cow and calf are finished. They are working on the life-sized bull — a grand one at that. The finished calf will weigh about 250 pounds. The bull will weigh as much as 800 pounds.

Massive antlers that weigh 50 pounds jut from the bull's skull. The faces of the three animals will be saved for last because the work will be so intricate, detailed and important. Ball bearings will be fitted into the sockets to make the elk seem alive.

"When you give it a face, you give it a personality," Barlow said.

As a sculptor, he's worked in ice, snow, marble and wood. He's even carved vegetables as a kitchen artist. This new medium with metal holds a special appeal.

"So many of my mediums are temporary. This will be around longer than both of us," Barlow said.

The men started the project in February. They typically fit in 25 to 30 pieces during the half-day they can devote to the elk. They still must work on other projects to pay the bills.

Robert Hubbell, president of Crawford Properties LLC, said his family selected elk for the roundabout because the ungulates have such a strong connection to El Jebel.

"We wanted a nice entrance to El Jebel and Missouri Heights and Blue Lake," he said.

"Our goal is to have the best roundabout in the valley," Barlow said.

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Shafer said they are looking for additional sponsors to cover their expenses. Potential sponsors are welcome to stop by the shop at 275 El Jebel Road to check out the work or call him at 970-274-8300.

The elk art should be completed in September if all goes as planned. It will be carefully transported and lifted into place in the center of the roundabout.

In the wake of the Lake Christine Fire, Shafer came up with an idea. He is going to place a time capsule in the belly of the elk. Items will include coverage of the fire by The Aspen Times, he said. He will leave a slot in the belly and is urging El Jebel area residents to save their re-entry passes, which were issued to people who had been ordered to evacuate because of the fire. He said more information will be released at a later date on submitting items for the time capsule, which will be opened at a future date.

scondon@aspentimes.com