Every time John Long creates a new piece of work, he honors the past.
In what he calls his “paintings in wood,” the Newfane, Vt., artist uses material that once held up historical structures, some more than 100 years old. He procures the weathered wood from barns that were torn down to make way for new construction.
“They are torn down on a daily basis,” said Long. “My work is looked at as a remembrance of barns disappearing.”
He said his work is inspired by author Eric Sloane, who wrote about disappearing family farms — and the barns that were part of them — in North America.
Long, who has lived in southern Vermont his entire life and is self-taught, always had an interest in art since his uncle bought him an oil painting set when he was a child. His father was a master carpenter and instilled Long’s love of architecture.
“He was an artist in his own right,” said Long of his father. “He taught me about drawing and perspective.”
Long started working with wood by creating large carved pieces, and in 1970 he began making framed depictions of barns and other architectural structures using barn board. He never paints or stains the wood — it’s always in its natural state in his work.
“I started to appreciate the colors and texture of barn board,” he said. “I took the idea in some ways from marquetry, a technique that uses exotic woods to make a framed photo.”
About 25 years ago he made his first wall-hanging sculptural piece — today he still calls his work “painting in wood.”
He begins a project with a sketch on paper before transferring his design to pieces of wood that have varying colors and textures. Every piece he cuts freehand on a band saw.
Using the grain and different colors of wood, fitting each scene together meticulously and forming what appears to be a three-dimensional interpretation. The wood can’t be too thick or too thin, and he works mostly with white pine, spruce and hemlock barn board, which he said are all easy to cut and sturdy.
He’ll work in trade for barn board, and his work is dependent on what he envisions for a piece. “If I run out of red, for instance, I have to wait until someone tears down a red barn,” he said.
While he makes pieces to fit a space — many are about 3-by-3-feet — he has created pieces of all shapes and sizes up to 9-by-10 feet.
Long’s inspiration originates from a desire to portray and preserve the character of these early American structures — a sugar house, carriage house, covered bridge, even a privy.
“(The privy) was an important part of our society all over the world,” said Long. “So many people identify with that one piece — it’s started many conversations and stories.”
He also does commissioned pieces, as he did when he handcrafted the logo art for the Broadway production, “Peter and the Starcatcher.” He’s working on a piece for Grace Cottage Hospital in Townsend, Vt., using wood from a barn on the hospital’s property that was recently razed.
He’s also always experimenting with new designs, and not only architectural ones.
“I’m working on depictions of birds and landscapes in wood,” he said.
His customers particularly appreciate his work that commemorates New England’s history.
“Barns are going and gone,” he said. “People who can still identify with the past look at my work and remember.”
Although Long has pared down the number of shows he does from 40 a year to about a half-dozen, this year he’s back on the Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour after a five-year hiatus. Because there are other artists located near his Newfane home and studio on the tour this year he was asked to join. Visitors will be invited into his workshop, where they can watch a demonstration and purchase his pieces.
The Rock River Artists 27th Annual Open Studio Tour is this Saturday and Sunday, July 20 and 21, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and features 17 artists in a range of media from functional pottery to thread on fabric; inlay to collage.
Visitors may pick up a map of artists’ locations and begin a self-guided tour at the old Schoolhouse in South Newfane village, where participating artists will present a gallery exhibition. Admission is free all weekend. For more information, call 802-348-7865 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Long’s artwork, visit artistinwood.com.