On a cold, rainy day last winter, Taylor Barnhill led a three-car caravan across Madison County. The group was on the lookout for historical barns. The territory was nothing new for the tour guide, who has been leading such expeditions since 2014. What made the outing unique, however, was the group’s interest in capturing these barns on canvas.
Known as the Saints of Paint, this band of artists has worked to raise funds for a number of local nonprofits. On Friday, June 21, the group will host its latest gala, A Pastoral Palette — The Barn Whispers its Memories, at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Tickets, which include food and wine, are $45 and benefit the Appalachian Barn Alliance, an organization that seeks to preserve the rural heritage of Madison County and surrounding areas through the documentation of historical barn building traditions. During the event, 50% of all art sales will also go to the nonprofit. The paintings will remain on display through Sunday, June 23.
Some of the featured barns date back centuries, says Barnhill. Others are much newer. In their heyday, most of these structures housed livestock or tobacco. Today, a majority are no longer in use, standing as mere relics of the past, weathered by time and in various states of disrepair.
Along with age and disuse, the region’s changing climate has also contributed to the ruins. Barnhill says milder winters have resulted in the year-round presence of wood-boring insects, such as powderpost beetles and carpenter bees. “They are destroying our barns at an accelerated rate,” the tour guide explains.
Such threats, says Saints of Paint founder John Mac Kah, contribute to the project’s sense of urgency. “A lot of landscape painting now is documenting exactly what we’re losing,” he says. “Whether it’s old-growth forests, barns, habitats — many of the things I’ve painted are simply gone now.”
The art form also inspires exploration, says participating artist Paul Blankinship. “People inhabit urban space by default,” he says. “Landscape paintings remind us that we can inhabit places out of desire and choice. I think that is a noble part of being human [and] is easy to forget.”
While some landscape painters capture their subject with a camera and then re-create the image in studio, the Saints of Paint prefer being on location. “There is a certain truth to working onsite,” Mac Kah explains. “You’re smelling the air and swatting the bugs and kind of becoming part of the environment. And it’s your reaction to that environment that is the truth.”
But truth seekers cannot rely on happenstance, warns Blankinship. When it comes to settling on a location, little is left to chance. Maps must be studied, food procured, weather reports monitored, access to private property sought, art supplies gathered and cars packed.
“It ends up feeling like you’ve done this research on a new world. And then, alas, you reach the primary source,” says Blankinship. “By that time, a good artist is ready for the real thing. It comes over him like a wave. It knocks you off your feet.”
Sandy Stevenson, ABA president, hopes a similar energy will be felt by attendees at the upcoming show. The work, she notes, spotlights an important aspect of Madison County’s history. “There is a Carl Sandburg poem that says, ‘And the barn was a witness, stood and saw it all,’” Stevenson quotes. “That’s why we focus on the barn and why we think it’s the iconic symbol of an agricultural heritage that we’re trying to preserve for future generations.”
Blankinship also sees the collection as a commentary on our own impermanence and legacy. “I want people to be aware that they live in a space that other people have managed before them and will continue to manage after them,” the artist says. “But we leave traces. And those traces hold a lot of stories. You can learn a lot about people by looking at the places they’ve inhabited and the things that they have built.”
WHAT: A Pastoral Palette — The Barn Whispers its Memories
WHERE: Lenoir-Rhyne University, 36 Montford Ave. avl.mx/65l
WHEN: Opening Friday, June 21, 5-8 p.m. $45 for the event. Artwork will remain on display Saturday and Sunday, June 22 and 23, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free