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The American barn is a cultural icon, but one that is quickly disappearing. In Port Austin, Michigan, an art project aims to draw attention to these structures -- and maybe even save some of them along the way. Jeffrey Brown reports as part of our American Creators series and ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
The American barn is a cultural icon, but one that is disappearing fast.
In Port Austin, Michigan, an art project aims to draw attention to these structures and maybe, along the way, save some of them.
Jeffrey Brown has this report as part of our American Creators series and ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
What looks like a giant Ark rises out of acres of surrounding soybean fields.
People who drive by, their initial confusion starts with, that's a weird-shaped barn.
A few miles away, what seems a working barn in reality has a slice cut out of it.
So, from this angle, you can start to see that the slice is not just a cut on the face, instead actually turns into a whole space itself.
And on one side of this barn, a painting of a pigeon, on the other, a mural styled after the famous American Gothic by Grant Wood, with a twist. They're wearing gas masks.
I want them to come and do this to my barn.
On this day, passersby had a chance to ask artists Steve and Dorota Coy what it means.
I was thinking, like, it was the farmers that sold out to big farming companies with the chemicals and sold out the farm.
It's multilayered, but, yes, that is the point.
That is an art project that my wife and I started. And so we thought we would critique corporate culture and corporate society, right?
For me, it's always been about the people. I love the people up here. I love the people of Detroit.
And this project, the idea of Jim Boyle, is a meeting of the two. Boyle grew here in Port Austin, at the tip of the thumb of Michigan. He's lived and worked in Detroit for decades, but has strong ties to rural life here.
Why are these structures going away? It's really complicated. Sometimes, they're not utilitarian anymore, and the farm equipment doesn't fit. Sometimes, it's more of the smaller farms getting swallowed up by larger farms.
So, what are the economic implications? And Detroiters can relate with all of those.
The city is 120 miles away. And after Boyle cobbled together grants and private donations, he launched the project in 2013 with Detroit-based artists.
I think a lot of people ask the question, why are you painting an old barn that's going to fall down?
And we barely had an answer for that.
Dorota and Steve Coy's work typically focuses on deserted urban spaces. But what's happening in Detroit, even a crumbling factory around the corner from their studio, has similarities to economic and other changes in rural Michigan.
The parallels are so strong. I mean, it's almost like the same force is causing both of those things to happen. And we're not having the broader conversation about why those things are impacting both of us.
Maybe, rather, we're looking at each other to kind of point the finger.
We don't want to just show up in the community and be like, here's an art piece that we have created for you guys. Like, I think there is a — there was a dialogue, so, between the community and making sure that they would be proud and behind what we were putting up.
Dairy farmer Mark Ziel owns the still-operating barn, and takes real pride in the transformation.
Every once in a while, I will stop in and talk to people who take pictures of it. And they say, boy, it's fading a little bit. Is there anything you can do to redo that, you know?
I could probably drum up some cash to get it done.
And for the local community, these art barns are a potential jumping-off point. The head of economic development for Huron County, Carl Osentoski, sees room for a thriving arts scene.
From our perspective, it's a renewable resource. Artists will always be making new art. People will want to either buy that or view that art. And it's kind of a cycle that can self-sustain over time.
It was very important for me to respect the place. How to keep that iconic form of the barn was very important.
Catie Newell is a Detroit-based architect and artist whose work deals with the concepts of light and dark. Her barn is an engineering feat. Cutting a slice through it required an enormous amount of shoring up on the inside to make it hold.
I was interested in figuring out how to, in a way, make sort of a subtraction in the barn that instead was adding a large opening for the sky.
So what was changing in the barn and, in essence, what might be delicate or impermanent in this project is actually just the constantly changing sky, the seasons, sunsets, very dramatic here.
But you're doing that by subtracting, as you say, by cutting into it, but that also adds to the structure somehow?
So, you're right, that the subtraction of sort of making a void and a big light well also became an addition of making a new space. And the barn, in essence, has literally been split into two barns at that moment.
Detroit sculptor Scott Hocking did something else with his barn. He tore it down.
Taking a barn that already exists that's kind of decaying, dilapidated and rebuilding it as something else just so that as people driving on the road might slow down and have a moment of, what the hell is that? What's going on with that barn?
Hocking reused the old boards to make what his large barn boat. And from the inside, there's an entirely different feeling.
In my mind, there's almost something cathedral-like about it. It's like the light coming through windows. There's something very beautiful. When the sun goes down, the sun kind of sets and gleams through these holes.
So, trying to create something that I saw in actual old barns by making gaps in between the boards.
The artists, all friends in Detroit, recently got together here for the first time.
The hope is that more art barns will follow, art for Michigan's rural thumb, and a creative way to draw attention to these imperiled icons of the American landscape.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.
Thank you, Jeffrey Brown, taking us places we don't get to see very often.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
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