Port Austin's famous barn art takes a detour with "The Deity"

53North, the organization behind Port Austin’s famed barn art, has taken a detour with the addition of its latest installation, “The Deity,” unveiled at Bird Creek Farms in the spring.

The work – the fourth installation in a projected series of 10 – is a resin, foam and fiberglass sculpture, differing from the original concept of its predecessors of creating art with abandoned barns.

53North Co-founder James Boyle said it’s an exciting turn.

“I think kind of pulling from different cultures and in a rural context was kind of interesting to us,” he said. “There’s just kind of a whole bunch of different levels that this seemed to speak to, not only to me, but the curatorial group.”

Creators Steve and Dorota Coy of the Hygienic Dress League donated the work, which is a gold therianthropic figure featuring a ram’s head atop a female human body. The approximately 9-foot sculpture sits upon a mound in a seated position, with her arms hugging her tucked-in knees in a somewhat sad state of contemplation.

“It's not a confident pose,” Steve Coy said. “If we think about this as a manifestation of Mother Nature, it's still a powerful creature, but also kind of uncomfortable with what’s happening right now.”

Coy said the work was inspired by ancient belief systems and meant to draw attention to shifting perspectives in culture throughout history. In a modern context, the cultural shifts include deindustrialization and the reduction of family farms in favor of larger corporations. 

“It’s about that balance between humans and nature and our impact on the planet in our own habitat,” he said. 

The community has had mixed reactions, with some concerned the work promotes paganism and witchcraft. 

Coy said that was not their intention and the sculpture was never meant to strike controversy.

“I think we were a little surprised at some of the interpretation, but also I think this piece should prompt conversations about religion and mythology and human beliefs,” he said.

The theme is reminiscent of the artists’ other 53North contribution, “Art in the Public Realm: Rural Edition,” barn murals that include an alternative version of Grant Woods’ famous “American Gothic” painting, which depicts the couple wearing gas masks. 

“The Deity” first appeared in Detroit’s Wasserman Projects art gallery in 2020 as part of a larger exhibition “Five Realms,” which examined the impact humans are having on their habitat. The Coys decided to donate the sculpture to 53North, because they envisioned the nature-themed work in a countryside, outdoor setting and had a good relationship with the organization.

They also wanted to contribute art to less populated areas that don’t have the same concentration of art as larger cities. 

“The spot was just really perfect, it was a circled clearing surrounded by trees, and you can hear the creek flowing,” Coy said. “We wanted the sculpture to live permanently or semi-permanently in a place like that, where it’s peaceful and beautiful and becomes a surprise for people.”

While the sculpture is significantly different than 53North’s signature barn art, Boyle said its theme parallels those of its other works, and how the project began.

“The reason we started this was artists were commenting on Detroit’s abandoned buildings in Detroit’s kind of deindustrialized landscape, and you saw some of the loss of some of these family farms in the rural landscape,” he said. “So there was a really great, interesting conversation that was going back and forth with all pieces, and this one was really no different, it was just kind of a sculpture.”

The remaining two 53North works include Scott Hocking’s “Celestial Ship of the North,” a giant “barn boat” made from a deconstructed 1890s barn, as well as Catie Newell’s “Secret Sky.” The latter is a structurally modified century-old barn that features a tall, acute angle carved into its side, projecting light and shadows onto the farm.

Next up, 53North is planning work with hyper-realist artist Bakpak Durden for a barn mural. Boyle said the concept is about nature and solitude, inspired by poetry from local poet Jane Mayes. The organization is also planning on bringing back programming around the series, like art talks and bike rides.

In the meantime, 53 North has been making repairs and restorations to its existing works, thanks to a grant from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council and individual donations. The efforts have included a new roof for “Secret Sky” and a paint refresh of “American Gothic.” “Celestial Ship of the North” will also get dirt reinforcements this summer.

Since its inception, the art has helped put Port Austin on the map, driving tourism and supporting the local economy, Boyle said. He’s also proud to create art in a very public, accessible setting.

“It’s a platform where people that might not always have experience or exposure to art get exposure,” he said, “and it’s a platform for these communities to have really important conversations and a moment in our history, where I think personally that that’s really, really important.”

Erica Hobbs is a writer based in Detroit with a passion for arts and culture and travel. She has reported for numerous news outlets including the Detroit News, Fodors, Business Insider, Reuters, WDET and AnnArbor.com (now the Ann Arbor News), among others.
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