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Monday, March 6, 2017

Barn Art

I assume this is on a hog farm.
Fine if you like "cute" barns.
A week or so ago, in choosing photos for an item I did on "Farm Art" I encountered a gorgeous rooster (below) painted on the side of a barn. I included it as an example in which outstanding art had come into its own in rural farm settings. At the time I made a mental note to investigate what I call "barn art." Here I'm not talking about paintings of barns. God knows the world-wide art collection is full and overflowing with a zillion images of barns, from free clip art to exquisitely beautiful masterpieces in the six-figure range. I went looking for art paint-ed ON barns. Here the selection of images is a good deal more limited, but still quite plentiful. Some are wildly creative as with the hog barn (above) to copies of fine art by Grant Wood, Leonardo, Raphael, and whoever the hell invented the "smiley face."
From a farm selling either chickens or eggs.
I wonder which came first?
I suppose barns were whitewashed as far back as colonial times (before that they were either log or stone construction). However, you can blame (or credit) the Mail Pouch Tobacco Company for starting the ball rolling insofar as turning the "broadside of a barn" in a messaging medium (below). Farmers were paid between one and two dollars a year as far back as 1890 ($20-$30 today) as a rental fee. They also got a coat of black paint to protect their barn and maybe a free pouch of Mail Pouch. The practice was discontinued in 1991 as the use of chewing tobacco all but died out. The barn below is so well preserved, it's probably a restoration job.

The surprising thing is, artists started painting
pictures of these big black billboards.
A number of other national and local companies picked up on the barn advertisement trend including Coca-Cola, General Motors, and hundreds of local businesses. It wasn't until the 1970s and the arrival of the American Bicentennial that artists began the second trend in barn painting--patriotic barns. That continues to be one of the predominant themes in such art, even today as seen in the wide variety of designs below.

Many murals like these were painted by just one or two itinerant artists. They number in the hundreds, spread all over the rural countryside
From barn art commemorating our nation's two-hundredth birthday, it was just a short step for artists into using barns to commemorate other memorable events and art icons, from the Mona Lisa to Johnny Cash and Jesus Christ. Sometimes the art was in good taste, sometimes...not so much. In the great majority of cases, the technical quality of such work was exceptional. It takes considerably more than an average artist to work on such a grand scale. Some localities have dozens of such murals commemorating famous nouns.

In some cases, murals such as these were
painted by the barn owners.
As with most evolving art trends, the more popular they become, the more likely it is for the "crazies" to come out of the woodwork and...well, join the craze. That's no less the case with barn art. While most such work strikes an optimistic tone, as seen in Dylan Ross' Threshers (below), it would seem that another farmer/artist is concerned that he might be totally replaced by American Gothic robots (on below).

Thresher Barn Located At 592 Clover Leaf Rd. in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, by Dylan Ross.
Grant Wood is no doubt rolling over in his grave.
Barn murals are not the same as the urban murals which can be seen popping up in virtually ever downtrodden neighborhood in virtually every major city in the country. In general it would be safe to say the rural murals are more conservative (the one above being an exception) than those found in various ethnic urban compounds. The buildings in such areas are taller with their blank sides, some freshly exposed for the first time in decades, offering opportunities for extremely large scale images (as compared to barns, at least). You may see a lot of "art" bordering on graffiti, but you won't see any Mail Pouch ads. Many such urban murals are so radical in concept and messages that even local businesses avoid them like the plague.

These two urban murals may be found in Baltimore, born from the "Open Walls" project. These are relatively small compared to some, but still much larger than most barn art.
There is one other area of barn art I think bears mentioning, that being the recycling of barns. As small farms all over the country are merged into larger ones, barns today are seldom built using much in the way of wood, but metal instead. The old barns are either torn down or simply fall down (from lack of paint, no doubt). What's left is weathered wood. Artists, especially painters and woodworking artists, love weathered wood. It's soft, highly textured, nostalgic, and usually a neutral gray in color, which lends itself to all manner of creative possibilities. Check out those below.

Top: Rock Garden, barn siding frame.
Bottom: Reclaimed Wood Wall Art, Craig Forget
And who better to grace the exterior of a
barn than Barney Fife himself?
Barney Barn, Broxton, Georgia, Dylan Ross.


  1. The 'Thresher Barn' is on Clover leaf road but is in Lancaster County Pennsylvania near Elizabethtown.
    I live near this one is how I know.

  2. Sally--

    That's my major focus, to inspire other artists.
    Thanks for reading and writing.