by Julie Riker

Pennsylvania artist Julie Riker had the unique opportunity to paint a barn raising and to document the event with her art. This really was history!

“The Star Barn,” named for its star-shaped gable vents, has long been a popular icon of mid-state Pennsylvania due to its unique architecture; it is the last Gothic Revival barn of its kind remaining in the area. It has been saved from ruin, carefully dismantled, and moved to a location where it will be maintained and used. In the tradition of Amish barn raisings, the owners of the property created a festival around the rebuilding that featured woodworking workshops, traditional crafts, music, and food, and gave people the opportunity to pitch in to help raise sections of the barn. The owners asked Riker to create two 24” x 36” paintings during the course of the three-day festival, which ended on July 4 with a crane hoisting the cupola onto the roof and a fireworks display.

Painting in progress, allowing space in the composition for the cupola

“It was a challenge,” says the artist. “The size of the painting was much larger than I usually paint on location, but I had three days, so I took my time. I knew that the structure of the barn would change throughout the day and had to learn the schedule of construction ahead of time so as to anticipate the changes and plan my paintings. I also knew the light would shift, but I established my light source right away and tried to keep to that even when things changed.

Star Barn, Raising The Bents, 24×36
Community volunteers pulling up the bents with ropes

“It was a busy event — there were lots of professional photographers and people snapping pictures on their phones, but there was only one painter. I kept thinking that, when these buildings were originally erected, there may have been a sketch artist of some kind documenting the event. I had a lot of fun with this, and people enjoyed watching me as well. They all had some sort of connection to the barn that brought them there — even if it was just being fond of seeing the star while driving down the highway. An Amish teen boy, maybe 14, stood and watched me paint for almost half an hour. He asked a lot of questions and was amazed that I was painting from observation, just what I saw. I thought that was a neat moment, two very different people connecting”

Riker’s painting of the Star Barn in 2014, before it was moved from its original location
Star Barn, Hoisting The Cupola, 24×36

Originally built in 1877, the Star Barn and matching outbuildings remained part of a working farm until 1986. A busy highway was built adjacent to the barn, and neighborhoods grew up around it. In 2000 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Pennsylvania list of most endangered properties. Efforts were made to restore the structure in the past, but now the buildings have been acquired by DAS Co. After a yearlong effort to carefully dismantle, restore, and catalog every piece down to the last peg, the buildings are being reassembled in nearby Elizabethtown, where they will be used as a venue for a range of special events.

Riker’s paintings will be displayed in the Star Barn complex as part of the permanent collection.

This article was featured in PleinAir Today, a weekly e-newsletter from PleinAir magazine. To start receiving PleinAir Today for free, click here.

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