TOWANDA, Ill. -- Advertising signs painted on rural barns were once a common sight across the country in 1920s and 1930s, and they are making a comeback on Jo Morrison's farm east of Towanda.
Laboring under a hot August sun, Scott Hagan, a Jerusalem, Ohio, artist, painted several murals and signs on Morrison's barns and outbuildings after Morrison commissioned the painter to decorate the structures.
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Morrison bought the farm after her 2005 retirement from teaching. She arrived in Bloomington-Normal in 1967 to go to school at Illinois State University.
"Every time I saw a barn there was something inspirational about it," Morrison said. "I grew up on a farm and now I've come back to a farm."
The farm came with two large barns and a variety of other buildings that have since become an artist's canvas. The buildings required some basic maintenance, however, and Morrison's friend, Dave Decker of Bloomington painted several of the structures a brownish barn red.
"Thank goodness for friends," Morrison said.
The decision to paint large murals came about after Morrison talked with Kristi Sutter, a friend who teaches at Bloomington's Sheridan Elementary School. Hagan's name came up in their discussions and Morrison said she was impressed with the paintings she found at Hagan's web site at www.barnartist.com.
Hagan arrived Aug. 6 and spent the week hanging from ladders and scaffolding, often times working until 2 a.m.
The artist began his career in 1997 when he painted the Ohio State mascot on the side of his father's barn. The 30-foot by 15-foot Buckeye logo caught the attention of a local newspaper, and a subsequent story resulted in Hagan receiving a commission from the Ohio Bicentennial Commission. An official asked him to paint a barn mural in every county of the state. It took Hagan four summers to paint signs on 100 barns in 88 counties.
Since then, Hagan has made barn painting a full-time job and supports a family of four. He has painted from 300 to 400 barns in 16 states and hopes to eventually have a barn painted in every state of the country.
Hagan said the tradition of barn painting started in earnest with the Mail Pouch Tobacco campaign that first appeared around 1890. The billboard had yet to be invented and Mail Pouch offered to paint farmers' barns for the rights to paint its advertisement on the walls.
Over the years a number of companies copied Mail Pouch's idea.
Hagan begins working on his barn paintings late at night, in the dark. Using a projector, he shines the proposed painting onto a side of the barn and traces the image to ensure the scale and composition is correct.
Hagan recreated one classic ad, a giant Coca-Cola sign, on Morrison's western-most barn. It can easily be seen from the highway.
Using a dry brush technique, Hagan painted the sign to look as if it had faded from decades of rain and scorching sunlight.
"The old-timers are going to be scratching their heads," Hagan said. "They'll be wondering why they never noticed the sign before."
Morrison commissioned Hagan to paint other murals, including a tractor on a garage door.
"It looks like there's a tractor parked in the garage," Morrison said.
Another mural celebrates the life of a tree that once stood near Cornell.
"When I lived in Cornell in 1933 there was a celebrated tree called the "Mile Tree" that stood in the middle of the road," she said.
"In 1961 it was cut down," Morrison said, explaining why she wanted to remember it.
Morrison's interest in barn painting inspired her to take up the art herself. She had already painted several barn quilts on some of her farm buildings before she commissioned Hagan.
The concept behind the barn quilt painting is to replicate a quilt pattern that you might have done with a sewing machine, she said.
Morrison's barn painting won't end with Hagan's return home.
"I talked him into tracing out some drawings on some of the other buildings," Morrison said. "I'll finish them after he's gone."