Preserving Ohio history one barn painting at a time

first_imgShare Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest Bob Kroeger grew up in Youngstown and spent his career as a dentist in a Cincinnati suburb. So why is he interested in the old barns of rural Ohio?“It was like an epiphany. My wife and I were on vacation in Licking County. We drove down an old country road toward our bed and breakfast. There at the intersection on top of a little hill was an old gray barn. There were boards missing and the roof was sagging and it was like a thunderbolt hit me right between the eyes and a voice came to me. I don’t know where it came from. It said, ‘You’re going to paint this barn and write about it,’” Kroeger said. “The next morning we went to the farmhouse and an old man came to the door. I tried to explain what I wanted to do. Eventually he loosened up and told me the history of the barn. That was the start of it. That was in 2012.”Kroeger had done a fair amount of writing, but never painted much, though his father had been a commercial artist.“I started painting when I was four with my father. I remember I got spanking after I had played with my father’s paints and left them open,” he said. “I hadn’t really done much painting since then, though. So after I saw that barn, I started a lot of drawing — you have to be able to draw to paint. I took some workshops and practiced drawings. My main ambition was not to do this from a commercial standpoint but rather a historic preservation standpoint.”For his painting, Kroeger uses palette knives and oil paint in the oil impasto technique on canvas or Masonite panels.“Impasto oil is thick and the painting must be completed in one or two sittings, as long as the second is close behind the first,” he said. “Unlike traditional oil painting, the thickness of impasto makes the paint harden relatively quickly, meaning that the artist can’t return and continue or change it a few days or weeks later like with traditional oil.”The thick paint reflects light in different ways because it protrudes from the canvas and it can change in appearance at different times of day or in different lighting. When possible, he uses wood from the barn to frame its painted image.“I make the frame and cut the Masonite to fit the frame and paint on it. I learned how to trim the old wood, cut the rabbet, and assemble a frame and, after mistakes and incorrect measurements, I gained respect for this craft,” he said. “Since I’m trying to preserve Ohio history in this project, the barn’s own wood adds another dimension to the painting. Actually, even though it takes a long time to make a barn wood frame from rustic lumber, it gives me a lot of joy, which I didn’t expect at first.”Kroeger painted a picture of that old barn he calls Granville Gray and he has gone on to preserve many other barns through his oil-painted portraits.“My goal is to go to each of Ohio’s 88 counties, paint some barns and preserve history,” he said. “I have never been much of a history student, but I now appreciate what the pioneers in Ohio did. They were very courageous in coming out here looking for new lands. Sometimes they lived in the barn. The barn was the moneymaker so to speak. They cleverly constructed the barns using correct woods and putting up barns that hold together to this day. They knew a lot more than people today think they did. Without them we wouldn’t have Ohio. It is part of the past I’d like to preserve.”At first, Kroeger would set out into the wilds of rural Ohio searching for barns to document on his own, but found that it was not a very efficient way to operate.“I started driving around looking for barns and stopping to talk to the owners. It was difficult to do it that way and, technically, I was trespassing,” Kroeger said. “So I started to send out feelers to historic societies. Then Highland County connected me with a ‘barn scout’ — she worked for USDA and knew everyone in the northern part of the county.”It was in Highland County where Kroeger decided to add another layer to his art. He had been looking for a way he could give back to the communities he was getting to visit through his new endeavor. He decided he wanted to sell his paintings at an event in the community with a portion of the proceeds going to a local charity.“I didn’t know much about 4-H, having been a suburban kid. I went to the county fair and watched the goat show competition. I saw kids who were clean cut and wholesome-looking and they weren’t glued to their smart phones. It was like going in a time machine back to 1955 when I was kid. I decided to do it for them,” he said. “I did a dozen paintings of Highland County barns. The next spring we did a fundraiser for them and half the proceeds went to 4-H.  We raised about a third of their annual auction and it made me feel good. And, when my essays about the barns were in the local paper, people in the county found out things about their neighbors’ barns they never knew and they really enjoyed that.”He has painted between 300 and 400 barns. With some experience now, Kroeger has a fairly set process. It starts with a non-profit to benefit from the proceeds and the help of a “barn scout.”“I’ll come to your county and do paintings of your barns if there’s a person in your community, someone passionate about old barns, who can help me,” he said. “The barn scout locates about eight to 12 old barns.”The barn scout needs to:• Contact the barn owners for permission to paint a picture of the barn.• Get pictures of the barns and send them to Kroeger.• Ask the barn owners about the barn’s history or some interesting stories.• See if the barn owners can supply some wood siding.• Spend a day with Kroeger touring the county while he does sketches, takes photos and make notes.• Help identify a local charity.Kroeger especially likes barns with weathered siding, bowed roofs, warped and missing boards, and hand-hewn beams built prior to 1930.“I have learned that people love their barns and they hate to see them go. Some of them get converted to other uses but some can’t do that,” he said. “I want it to represent what the barn is. Especially if it is torn down soon after, I feel like I am preserving a memory. I love every painting that I do. I meet new people and most of the people I meet are very good, hardworking, trustworthy people. I enjoy that part of it too. But mostly, I just want to preserve these barns before they are gone.”His paintings and contact information can be found on two websites: and

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