Rural Art: More than a Pretty Picture
Art is about creating….and eventually fading away. Since the stone age, people have been making art to help them deal with life and death. Pleistocene people from around the world left something of themselves on rocks and cave walls; the oldest has been around for more than 50,000 years-what a legacy to leave behind! I doubt if our paper and digital images will survive that long. Classical painters often featured symbolism of rebirth and death in their artwork. For me, I explore our life’s journey when painting barns and other structures common in the Mid Michigan area.
Anyone who has followed my social media and blog knows I enjoy driving around the countryside painting farms that are showing their age. Buildings that are in immaculate condition, perhaps with a fresh coat of paint or a new roof, are beautiful and make great photos. I’m also glad that they have been given new life. However, I am usually attracted to the barn that is in much worse shape just down the road from the pristine farm.
Why do We Love the Old Stuff?
I have often thought about why many people, myself included, love old, deteriorating structures. Here are some of my thoughts and images.
Structures that show age-wood that is uneven, fading paint, collapsing roofs-are much more interesting, maybe because there is more going on visually. Their weathered exteriors tell a story of the people who built them and their succeeding generations. Perhaps these are some reasons why many people prefer older homes rather than new-the older ones have more “character.”
There is sadness-but also beauty-in the slow deterioration of these buildings. Like us, farm buildings inevitably break down and go back to the earth. Happily, some may be restored but most do not, and barns are not built the way they used to be.
Many people grieve the loss and some are critical of property owners that are not saving them; its easy to be judgmental on facebook when one doesn’t have to face repair costs and liability issues.
Everything changes. Still it is disappointing to drive by a favorite barn for years and then see it replaced with a pole barn.
A Farm Worth Multiple Visits
For years now I have been observing the changes with one Isabella County farm and featured it in my last blog titled “Suspicious to Congenial: Meeting People While Painting “. This inspired me to finish my latest piece of art- the painting “Vine and Moss Covered Farm” used as this blog’s featured image above, which is also available for purchase. It is based on my drawings (one is here), watercolor sketches, and photos.
The vines, like cancer, seem to be eating the structures from inside out. I exaggerated this in the painting, and the muted colors add to the dark and gothic feel. It is not a pretty work but interesting in the bare bones grittiness of a early winter day in Mid Michigan.
Yet I find this breaking down process very interesting. Although a bit melancholy, I enjoy going back and comparing the changes with my last visit; is the roof collapsing or has the entire structure been bulldozed?
I read somewhere that once the roof goes, the structure is no longer salvageable. Sometimes I am surprised at how little change has occurred and other times marvel how swiftly the deconstruction is happening.
Rusting Livestock Trailer
Now to step away from barns for a bit. Here is another example of beautiful deterioration. These two paintings of a rusting trailer in a farmer’s field were done a few months apart somewhere in Isabella County Michigan. I loved how the colors blended and formed from the oxidation of the metal.
The painting is about the connection with the rust color and the rufous of the oak leaves, which were still on the trees in the autumn rendition. While painting this, someone stopped and asked what I was doing and when I showed him he responded, “Why the hell are you painting that when you have a beautiful view right behind you?”
I explained that I often painted these wonderful views, but the trailer’s colors, especially the rust, is taking on the appearance of the landscape and I found that appealing. He wasn’t buying it; the encounter was a reminder that not everyone sees beauty in rust and deterioration. He was a local and to him the trailer was probably only a daily eyesore. Perhaps he had to work hard preventing these destructive forces on his job and property.
I returned to the trailer on New Year’s Day to paint it a second time during a mild snow storm. The first day of the year is symbolic of rebirth and renewal, which seemed especially poignant given my subject matter’s age and condition. Yet the trailer’s colors were especially beautiful on the white and grays of the landscape.
The Circle of Life
Farm buildings are a good symbol for our own life cycle of youthful vigor, retirement, ageing, and eventual demise. Like us, when first built, these structures are strong and are fully functional. Eventually their original use is abandoned and they become storage facilities until the roof goes. Many old barns don’t seem to be in use now but we still appreciate their structure and history, like we see beauty in our elder’s wrinkles and their stories.
I am especially reminded of this lately because my eighty-two year old mother recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Thankfully, she is now out of quarantine and only had minor symptoms. However, this experience reminded me that everything we love and cherish is fleeting.
We must make way for the new; it is inevitable because the new is built upon the old who give their resources over to be used again–The “Circle of Life”. All my life I have explored these themes in science and ecology, Christianity and traditional Native American beliefs. This circle is a universal truth even though the particulars may be different.
So painting these old structures is done not just because they are pretty and quaint but because we see in them a deeper truth of our human condition and the stories they tell with their fading wood and sagging roofs.
Although I myself can only slow the effects of age on my body and mind, I find much to appreciate about turning sixty this year. I hope I can continue sharing the existential stories of these structures and this artist for as long as I can write and paint.