At family picnics, they’d stand together in a quiet group, their slow-talking stories bringing chuckles and snorts amongst themselves. To my young eyes, they always seemed like stern, but friendly giants, fingers like sausages, leather-hard hands and corded arms. I was surprised once I reached adulthood to find they didn’t tower over me, though they’d still make me wince at a handshake, their eyes sparkling. My grandma’s little brothers, they were ranchers and lumbermen, and a carpenter in-law, in eastern Oregon.
My aunts' smothering hugs made the uncles’ handshakes seem gentle. Eyes twinkling, they were always moving, putting together meals, or some other chore, while catching up with family, doing anything that needed done. My Aunt Marilyn, gone just last year, was on horseback every chance she got, well into her 90’s.
They are what the barns are about.
I swore I’d never paint a barn, but that was before I took Darby out to meet them, from our then home in western New York. She was welcomed and swept up in the love they offered the same way I always was, and after four days, before leaving we wandered out into the original hay barn. It’s gone now, burned as so many go, but on that day I stood there, wondering how my life had gone so wrong I wasn’t a cowboy. Darby said, Why don’t you paint barns, they’re beautiful. I said, Yes, but they’re kitschy as a subject. She laughed, and giving me a thump, said, They don’t have to be.
And that’s where it began, a new body of work, trying to take a common subject and make it something new. To turn a subject of sweet nostalgia and American pie into something contemporary and iconic, representational to an extent, but imbued with the energy and surface of expressionism. They are a marker of my own evolution from the strict representational work that fascinated me in my youth, to the more contemporary influences of abstract expressionism and color field painting.
For me they are monuments to people like my aunts and uncles, people who’s lives and labors were forever tied to a place, men and women who greeted the day the same way they did their nephew, with smothering hugs, bone crushing handshakes, and enthusiasm for the life at hand.