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Basque Studies Program Newsletter · Issue 59, 1999

Basque Art in Reno, Nevada

by Carmelo Urza

Basque art, as defined for purposes of this article, refers to public art created by Basques or public art which reflects the image of Basques. Reno is fortunate to have several important pieces: the National Basque Monument at Rancho San Rafael, the Shepherd sculpture at John Ascuaga’s Nugget, the Orreaga sculpture in the main library at the University of Nevada, Reno, the Lertxundi sculpture in front of City Hall, the triptych at the north end of the main UNR library and a number of paintings, sculptures and carvings at the Basque Studies Program itself. This article will describe each in turn.

Monuments to the Basques
By far the two largest art pieces are the National Basque Monument and The Shepherd. Both represent the Basque sheepherder and, through that occupational archetype, they honor the Basque immigrant to the American West. Both are major bronze sculptures by major artists. Besides these similarities, however, they couldn’t be more different.

The National Basque Monument was born as an idea in 1984 and was unveiled on August 27, 1989. It was proposed as a public project, evolved over time, and enjoyed the participation of many public and private organizations. The official overarching organization in charge of the Monument project was the Society for Basque Studies in America, which worked in conjunction with a local committee in Reno. The project was funded by public subscription, with significant funding coming from official Basque entities (governments, banks, etc.) from the Old World as well as significant individual contributions in the New. The Monument stands today at the northern edge of Rancho San Rafael, a 490-acre regional park.

Perhaps typical of this type of project, there were a few false starts before the project jelled. The committee decided that the monument should represent some specific aspect of the Basque presence in the United States. While Basques had been involved in many occupations, their strongest group reputation had been developed as sheepherders in the West, and as a result, that archetype was chosen to represent the whole. A dozen artists from the United States and from Europe were invited to submit proposals which would express this concept. Nine proposalswere submitted, and three artists were selected to submit maquettes. A panel of Reno-area artists and cognoscenti made the final choice. Old World Basque artist Nestor Basterretxea’s submission Bakardade/Solitude was the winner. With a concrete project in hand, a brochure was designed and fundraising started in earnest. So began the controversy.

Those of us who were involved in the project were soon to learn the diversity of the other players and of the audience, and how they were to play a central role in the project. Unwittingly, we had stumbled into a major breach of who “the Basques” were and of how they wanted to be viewed. As it turns out Nestor Basterrechea was a Basque artist from the Basque Country whose work had long explored Basque character and beauty. He was also a modern artist, one of the vanguard in Europe. For the Old World supporters of the Monument, the fact that he was from the Old Country was an asset, for they would get to showcase one of their own. Basterretxea’s status as a modern artist was also beneficial on a different front, since the Basque Government was anxious to project an international image of the Basque Country as a modern place in which businesses should invest. And indeed, the Basque Country is a very modern part of the world, equipped with the latest technology, a first-rate educational system and a highly qualified and sophisticated labor force. Old World governmental entities were probably not thrilled to have their culture presented on the world stage in the archetype of a sheepherder. And yet, they tempered their objections and provided important financial support.

In the American West, however, the image of the Basques which had been evolving for the last quarter century emphasized the antiquity of the people (a possible remnant of the original Cro-Magnon population of Europe), the uniqueness of the language and other associations that set the Basques apart from the rest of the world. The best known Basque figure in the New World was that of the sheepherder and indeed, many Basques in the American West currently hold in common a herder ancestor, due to the historic realities of employment opportunities that were available to early immigrants. Most of those who had come to the U.S. originated from isolated Old World farmhouses; they were largely uneducated and had emigrated to the U.S. to herd sheep as very young men. And yet, they spoke Basque and embodied the cultural icons which had been collectively selected as those that made the Basques different. Furthermore, the last important wave of immigration ended in the 60’s and so they represented, in a sense, the authentic baserri-based culture of a former era, frozen in time in the American West. They were precisely the group which had been selected to be honored by the National Basque Monument, and these Basques didn’t see themselves as sophisticated Europeans.

The resulting controversy of this project was probably no different than that of other public art projects. Representational or figurative art went head to head against abstract art, the modern against the traditional. In fact, Basterrechea’s sculpture is probably classified as postmodern in that it represents a partial return towards realism. That is, it had an outside referent - something “real,” the figure of a man, although that figure was distorted or abstractly represented.

To many supporters of the Monument, and to Basque immigrants and former herders, the sculpture was not a faithful reflection of themselves, a hard-working, straightforward, uncomplicated people. Furthermore, they argued, the figure of the sheepherder was a biblical icon, and the Basques themselves an ancient people. Shouldn’t traditional stories be related in traditional styles?

For Nestor Basterretxea, and for others, the question was not so simple. Basterretxea believed that the external elements of dress were not the most important dimension of the Basque sheepherder. Rather, Basterretxea found the Basque essence in the sheepherder’s character.

Sheepherding in the West was a tough, lonely occupation, and it took a strong man to withstand the hardships, unfathomable loneliness, dangers, and deprivations. Furthermore, for the Basques, both physical and psychological strength was a cornerstone of their culture. Basterretxea attempted to externalize this essence of strength in his Monument sculpture. Some supporters were not bothered that the project was controversial. Indeed, many found controversy to be a benefit. It was better to be hotly debated than ignored. Nor did it bother them that the sculpture was a difficult “read,” that is, that its meaning was not easy or obvious to the casual viewer and that it would require the onlooker’s personal interpretation and involvement to understand the message.

The debate raged during the fundraising stage and echoes of the discussion have lasted a decade. However, even among the most vocal detractors of the sculpture itself, there was support for the project. People understood that the project had developed momentum, and that it had the potential to become a reality. Although they may have had aesthetic differences, everyone understoood that collectively they had an opportunity to make a major artistic statement about the Basques in the United States. For that reason, most of them set their personal differences aside and supported the project. In return, the contributors or those they wished to honor were memorialized on bronze plaques at the site.

Fortuitously, for those who preferred a more literal and representational sculpture, the 4th of August 1998 was a happy day. For that was the date of the public unveiling of The Shepherd, a seventeen-foot-tall bronze sculpture by Douglas Van Howd, commissioned by John Ascuaga and his wife Rose, owners of the Nugget Hotel and Casino in Sparks, Nevada. Both are Basque Americans, and the sculpture was commissioned, according to the news release, to “honor their parents and all Basque immigrants who left their homeland for opportunities in the American West,” as well as the “way of life and indomitable spirit” of Basque culture. “People don’t realize the hardship they faced coming over here, not speaking a word of English, going up in those hills,” Ascuaga said. The August inauguration of The Shepherd was scheduled to coincide with the opening of the Restaurante Orozko, the new Basque and Mediterranean restaurant at the Nugget. The name of the restaurant comes from the name of the village in the Spanish Basque Country from whence John Ascuaga’s father, Jose, originally emigrated in 1914.

Coincidentally, the Van Howd sculpture was one of the finalists of the original competition for the National Basque Monument. Van Howd has several public art pieces in Reno, including the wolves at the entrance to the University football stadium and the skier at the entrance to the airport. Van Howd is highly regarded in the Reno area. Little did anyone anticipate a decade earlier that we would wind up enjoying both sculptures. Van Howd’s work is a classic piece of realism which depicts a sheepherder picking up a lamb to hide it from the elements under his open coat. The figure is replete with all the accoutrements of a herder, including a sheep hook, a hat, and a trusty dog by his side. “This is a realistic version,” Van Howd said, comparing his work to the Basterretxea sculpture. “The spring winds we get here are pretty cold. He’s pulling his coat up and he’s sheltering a lamb under his coat.”

Zenbat Gara Dance Ensemble, from UNR, performed at the unveiling. Many other local Basques attended as well with a satisfied look on their faces, as if they had finally gotten the sculpture they wanted. This sculpture is a welcome addition to other Basque-related art projects in the Truckee Meadows, and a welcome contrast to the modern Basterretxea sculpture in Rancho San Rafael. Now, both sides of the debate have “their” Basque sculpture.

Other Works in Reno
Orreaga is the Basque name for the Pyrenean Valley known as Roncesvalles in Spanish or Ronceveaux in French. It is also the name of the sculpture in the lobby of the UNR library. It commemorates the battle in which Basques attacked Charlemagne’s rearguard early in the Ninth Century. Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew and the captain of the rearguard, was killed in that battle. His death inspired the famous epic poem, “The Song of Roland.”

Orreaga is a large oak sculpture that spans an area eighteen feet high and ten feet wide. Although highly abstract, the two-piece oak sculpture alludes to the narrative of the battle. The lower piece is in the form of a large U, suggesting the canyon walls trapping the forces of the invading Franks. In the center, a complex oval structure represents the doomed army of the invaders. An aggressively shaped discoid hangs from the ceiling above and represents the attacking Basques swooping down on them like the bird of death. The author of Orreaga was Nestor Basterretxea, the same artist who created the National Basque Monument.

Path of Equilibrium is a piece created by Basque artist Mikel Angel Lertxundi. It was installed in the summer of l994 in front of Reno City Hall. Lertxundi used the main elements of the earth for his materials: stone (granite from Nevada), wood (oak from California) and iron. The 9 x 6 x 6-foot sculpture, in its composition and materials, is designed to reflect the life processes of birth, life, and death.

The offices of the Basque Studies Program contain several pieces of original art, including a three-foot bronze maquette of the original design of the National Basque Monument (the final sculpture was modified from this first version).

In 1990, Mikel Lertxundi held an exhibition of original art at the University in Reno. After the show, he donated one of the pieces to the Basque Studies Program. The piece is called Orekaren bila-VIII (In Search of Equilibrium-VIII) and is composed of three separate pieces, one made of wood, the other of stone and the third of iron.

On the staircase leading to the Basque Studies Program, there is a triptych painted by Spanish artist Enrique Linatza. The piece is entitled Buruauste (Puzzle), and is composed of a series of squares which, in muralist tradition, depict an epic scene taken from the journey of the Basque immigrant traveling from the Old World to the New.

The BSP also exhibits a number of tree trunks decorated with original carvings by sheepherders. The carvings are representative of the thousands of arborglyphs throughout the American West carved by bored Basque sheepherders who wanted to leave a human mark on an otherwise lonely landscape.

If the samples of tree carvings in the BSP do not satisfy your interests, you may go into the countryside around Reno to see the living originals. There are a couple of groves that can be accessed most of the year over dirt roads on Peavine Mountain just north of Reno. For instructions on how to reach them, please call the Program.

Finally, there are three oil paintings by Virginia de Rijk Chan in the Basque Studies Program. Virginia was the Assistant Coordinator of the Program for many years and, although she now lives in Amsterdam, she has painted portraits of three individuals who have played prominent roles in the Program: the late Jon Oñatibia, a teacher of Basque dance, music and language; the late Jon Bilbao, a bibliographer and collaborator at the BSP for 25 years; and William A. Douglass, founder and Director of the BSP.

We invite you, the next time you are in Reno, to take a few hours to visit some of the Basque art that can be found in the area.


Copyright © 2000 the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno. All rights reserved. Updated 13 June 2000. E-mail: