Friday, September 23, 2011

On Old Barns and Artists

I have always cultivated a secret passion for old barns, and have been dismayed at how many are vanishing from our landscape, so it is gratifying (and humbling) to witness a talented artist wielding her paintbrush in defense of them. Like small children, they can’t speak for themselves. They are too easily and frequently abused and neglected. But like our great-great-grandparents, their broad shoulders have withstood the brunt of storms and the test of time. They helped shape Indiana…and oh, the stories they could tell!

Gwen Gutwein is one of the artists who has so generously donated a work of art to our 2011 Buffalo Tro fundraiser, a plein-air oil painting of the Old City Hall building, which now houses the History Center. She is an exhibitor and award winner of the Hoosier Salon, which in the art world is a Pretty Big Fat Deal. With a focus on realism, it has roots going back to 1925 and earlier. It was foundered by members of the Hoosier School of art and the famed Brown County Artists. (You’ve seen their work if you’ve even been to the Student Union at I.U., or to many Indiana art museums).

But what especially sets Gwen apart is her series on Indiana Barns. She has dedicated the past six years of her life to capturing them on canvas before they are gone. With a goal of 2 (or more) from each county, she has completed 100 since 2005, and has 84 more to go. I had the privilege of taking a peek inside her studio, and got a close-up look at some of these magnificent barn paintings, but you can also see her first 50 barns as part of a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

Gwen grew up on a farm, and has fond memories of playing in the barn with her siblings and cousins. As she got older, she was amazed at the skill and integrity that went into building them. “They really knew what they were doing when they built these barns. Even on a hot summer day, you walk down to the lower level and it is 65 degrees. You can’t get that with a modern pole barn.” She also marveled at the old-growth timber that went into the barns, and continues to be preserved by them.

She set brush to canvas when she noticed them disappearing—a collapse of a neglected old heap here, a tear-down to make way for a faceless subdivision there. One by one. Gone, and never to return.

Each of her paintings has a much deeper story behind it, and sometimes it is heartbreaking. She was painting an 1835 stone barn in Southern Indiana, and mentioned it to some architectural experts, who came down from Chicago, climbed all over it, inside and out, and proclaimed it a Smithsonian-quality treasure. In its basement were three 60’ hand-hewn chestnut beams, with 24 additional chestnut beams and many 24" wide planks in the hayloft. The farmer was begging her to buy it—he had sons, and they just weren’t interested in this legacy. “I’ll sell it to you with ten acres of land. I’ll sell it with five!”

Other stories are chilling. In one county, she has only painted one barn. Another barn owner agreed to let her paint an additional barn, but then her son stepped in and denied the permission. She said it is the most desolate county, with huge tracts of corporate farmland, few trees, fences gone, tractors bigger than her house, and a business model designed to wring every last grain of corn or soybean from the brutalized ground—rather than turning at the edge of a field, the tractors drive straight across the roads as they are plowing, planting and reaping. (Most of the smaller family farms are now huge conglomerations). “In that county,” she noted, “people couldn’t even look me in the eye.”

For the most part, though, she is welcomed joyfully by barn owners who take great pride in what they have and want to share it with others. The collection has already been featured extensively in galleries and museums, but Gwen is not selling any of the paintings. She explains, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; if I piecemeal them out, the collection will lose its integrity.” Her hope is that the collection will be preserved intact and be kept in the public eye so Hoosiers can continue to appreciate the treasures they have in their landscape, and take steps to start preserving them before they are all lost.

To see the full series of works in the Barn Project, go to The three barns shown here are all in Allen County, and the Old City Hall painting was donated on behalf of our Heritage Education Fund. Gwen sells her paintings through her studio and local galleries, and also have offered barn calendars since 2008.

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