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In rural Michigan, Detroit artists reimagine the iconic American barn


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: What looks like a giant Ark rises out of acres of surrounding soybean fields.

Scott Hocking: People who drive by, their initial confusion starts with, that's a weird-shaped barn.

Jeffrey Brown: A few miles away, what seems a working barn in reality has a slice cut out of it.

Catie Newell: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Woman: I want them to come and do this to my barn.

Jeffrey Brown: On this day, passersby had a chance to ask artists Steve and Dorota Coy what it means.

Woman: I was thinking, like, it was the farmers that sold out to big farming companies with the chemicals and sold out the farm.

Steve Coy: 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?

Jim Boyle: For me, it's always been about the people. I love the people up here. I love the people of Detroit.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Jim Boyle: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Dorota Coy: I think a lot of people ask the question, why are you painting an old barn that's going to fall down?

Steve Coy: And we barely had an answer for that.


Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Steve Coy: 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.

Dorota Coy: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: Dairy farmer Mark Ziel owns the still-operating barn, and takes real pride in the transformation.

Mark Ziel: 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?


Mark Ziel: I could probably drum up some cash to get it done.


Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Carl Osentoski: 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.

Catie Newell: It was very important for me to respect the place. How to keep that iconic form of the barn was very important.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Catie Newell: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: But you're doing that by subtracting, as you say, by cutting into it, but that also adds to the structure somehow?

Catie Newell: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: Detroit sculptor Scott Hocking did something else with his barn. He tore it down.

Scott Hocking: 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?

Jeffrey Brown: Hocking reused the old boards to make what his large barn boat. And from the inside, there's an entirely different feeling.

Scott Hocking: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you, Jeffrey Brown, taking us places we don't get to see very often.

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