Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why I "Never" Paint Old Barns



Philip Koch, Stone City Barns, oil on canvas, 24 x 48",
1991

Here is a painting that owes a great deal to one of the country's most intriguing regional painters, Grant Wood (1891-1942). A native of Cedar Rapids, IA, Wood conducted a summer painting school for, I believe, two seasons in the nearby town of Stone City, IA. One of his paintings, Stone City, Iowa, depicts the town as it appeared at the time. I remember seeing this painting reproduced in my 7th or 8th grade history textbook. Back then I didn't like the painting but found myself stopping to look at it often. Usually that's a sign it is slyly working its magic on you.



I was invited to have my first solo art museum exhibition at the Cedar Rapics Museum of Art by its then Director Joseph Czestochowski back in 1990. As part of the show they asked me to come out to Cedar Rapids for a week and teach a painting class. Naturally I wanted to paint the landscape myself and was strongly urged by the Museum staff to try Stone City as a source. At first I hoped to duplicate the viewpoint Grant Wood had painted from, but as so often happens, a wall of trees had grown up in the intervening years to block the panorama. Still you could drive over the little bridge depicted in the painting and wind your way up the road that climbs the far hillsides.

Undeterred, I set out exploring the surroundings and made a discovery. Back East where I'm from, wood barns have long since been replaced with those soulless corrugated metal barns that look like industrial warehouses. But this part of Iowa has the good sense to preserve their historic barns. At least near Stone City, all the farms had these marvelous one-of-a-kind working wooden barns, lovingly painted and repaired over the years. In such an open landscape, they stand out as monumental sculpture, only better as they don't make any pretense about being high art. What they do have is an unmistakable personality.

I did two major paintings of different barns and both turned out beautifully. There is a cruel irony to this as for years I had made fun of landscape painters who featured old barns. Confronted with the sensitive inventiveness of these Stone City barns, I ate my hat and succumbed to their charms. "Never say never" department.

As year have gone by I've come to deeply appreciate Grant Wood's imaginative world. He found a way to incorporate the modernist winds that were sweeping the art world of his time without losing his connection to the land and people of the Midwest he knew, and loved, so deeply.


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