Artist paints barn at park project with hex sign art
MACUNGIE, Pa. (AP) — Eric Claypoole was up on the ladder again the other day, painting yet another barn with those unmistakable charms of Pennsylvania Dutch country: Hex signs.
The Lenhartsville craftsman was finishing the fourth of four signs evenly spaced across the red planks of the barn on the Kratzer Farm in Lower Macungie Township, a 90-acre bulwark against suburban sprawl that will someday be the centerpiece of the municipal park system.
“I did my first barn in ’72,” Claypoole said, pausing for a cigarette in the cool afternoon and remembering his entry into the world of Dutch folk art. “I was 11 or 12, helping my dad.”
Claypoole’s work is the first visible step in the conversion of Kratzer Farm, on Willow Lane between Lower Macungie Road to the north and Sauerkraut Lane to the south.
A master plan adopted by the township earlier this year envisions the farm as a patchwork of attractions: community gardens, a fishing pond, an educational seed farm, an apiary. The barn itself, which Claypoole said probably dates from the 1830s, may become a venue for weddings and other events.
“We’re at the beginning of the process to implement the plan over the next several years,” said Sara Pandl, the township’s planning director.
Pandl told township commissioners when the project was finally approved in January after years of planning that she “can’t think of any other park like this, definitely not in Lower Macungie Township but probably not in this part of the country.”
She likened the project to the long restoration of the former Camp Olympic on Cedar Crest Boulevard into the popular Camp Olympic Park.
When the township decided to have the barn decorated, it called Claypoole’s employer, Robertson’s Restoration in the Berks County community of Kempton, one of the go-to businesses in the region for historical work.
Claypoole’s expertise in the field is an inheritance of sorts. His father was Johnny Claypoole, who painted hex signs for more than 40 years until his death in 2004.
The elder Claypoole appeared on Charles Kuralt’s old CBS show “On The Road” and the game show “What’s My Line,” demonstrating the art he learned at the hand of a master named Johnny Ott.
All of Johnny Claypoole’s sons dabbled in the craft, but Eric is the only one who made a career of it. Outside of his job with Robertson’s, he has a business called Claypoole Hexsigns and sells his wares at the Kutztown Folk Festival and other events.
Claypoole calls designs painted on structures “barn stars” to distinguish them from the portable signs, which a Lancaster County artisan named Jacob Zook is credited with creating in the 1940s to sell as souvenirs.
Whatever the name, they are an engaging and mysterious art form, either crammed with symbolic value or merely decorative — “chust for nice,” as the Dutch dialect has it.
“We’ve argued that forever,” Claypoole said. “The eight-point stars in Berks County are said to represent marriage and fertility. The scallop represents smooth sailing. A circle represents unity. White is purity.”
The oldest barn signs go back two centuries. Some are more ornate than others, with teardrops, rosettes and compass roses alongside stylized birds called distelfinks (thistle finches), tulips, butterflies, acorns and even unicorns.
Some signs are said to be invested with biblical meanings — with a 12-pointed star, for example, representing the 12 apostles — but hexes are also thought to have pagan origins, so that’s just another wrinkle of the debate.
The “chust for nice” contingent points out that hex signs were not called by that name until the 1920s, when a historian named Wallace Nutting published a book called “Pennsylvania Beautiful.” Scholars surmise he mistook the Dutch word “sechsafoos” — six-pointed — for “hexefuss,” meaning witch’s foot, a name evocative of folk magic.
Before that, the signs were known broadly as “sterne and blumme” — stars and flowers. Claypoole said the former style is most common in Berks County; the Lehigh County Dutch favored flowers.
Many of the more arcane meanings originated in the fertile imagination of Ott, the old master who found hex signs more marketable to tourists if they were infused with a bit of mystery.
With the barn painted, the township can look to the next steps in the Kratzer project. Pandl said the Wildlands Conservancy and the local chapter of the nonprofit Trout Unlimited will soon start restoring the riparian buffer along the Little Lehigh Creek, which runs through the property.
The Planning Commission has also recommended the township apply for a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to start work on parking and other development.
“It’ll be nice,” said Claypoole, admiring a tall butternut tree next to the barn where his stars and wheels will enchant visitors for decades to come.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com