Barns become works of art in Michigan's 'thumb'

Once common in rural Michigan, barns are disappearing from the landscape. But in one Michigan community barns are turning into works of art. This innovation has not only preserved part of the state's agricultural past but has become an economic tool for Port Austin. 
Weathered and abandoned barns are common sights along the roads of rural Michigan, remnants of the state’s farming past.

Some of those still-standing barns — in Michigan’s thumb — are being transformed into works of impressive, head-turning art. 

The most recent barn-turned-art installation — and perhaps the most photographed so far — is called “Secret Sky.” By making some structural modifications and a few other physical changes to a century-old barn, artist Catie Newell has created a road stopper along North Pinnebog Road in rural Huron County.

Newell, a Detroit-based artist and architect, carved a tall acute angle in the side of the barn. The structural modifications allow slivers of light to stretch from the barn across the field of the still-working farm. 

Photo: Catie Newell

“It looks like a very simple cut through the barn,” says Newell, a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan who likes to explore the themes of light and darkness in her work. “I didn’t want to cut a big hole in the barn. I wanted a passage you could walk through. You can walk through the barn but never really enter it […] you become immersed in that landscape.”

At night, the barn is illuminated with lights powered by solar panels on the barn’s roof. The barn remains illuminated for two hours each night, standing like a beacon amid vast dark fields of farmland.

“It’s just magical,” says Newell, who initially illuminated the barn with a generator. “The quality of light and darkness adds things to our spaces. I’m incredibly fascinated by that. I’m always chasing, hunting light and darkness.”

Newell’s barn was the third installation in a years-long project known as “53North,” named after M-53, the state highway — also known as Van Dyke Avenue — that runs from Detroit to Port Austin. Port Austin, home to about 600-plus people, sits at the very tip of Michigan's thumb.

“There’s been tons of press,” says Jim Boyle, a former Port Austin resident who spearheaded the art project. “The community has really embraced the project.”

Inspiration for the project came while driving around the rural landscape, home to expansive farms that grow sugar beets, soybeans and corn, a place Boyle used to call home.

“I was amazed by the number of abandoned 20th century structures up there -- it was analogous to what we were seeing in urban environments like Detroit,” says Boyle, who has been very active in Detroit’s flourishing art scene. “Artists were using these buildings in Detroit for their medium. I thought we could do something like that with these amazing structures.”

Those amazing structures are disappearing from the state's rural landscape. The wood barns of yesteryear don't meet the needs of modern farms, which are larger in scope and use larger equipment, machinery that doesn't fit into traditional barns. 

"This project is a way of preserving barns in our area and across the state," says Carl Osentoski, who is executive director of the Huron County Economic Development Corporation. "But these barns also have energized the art community in Port Austin. They've sparked the idea that the arts can be a tool for economic development. There's always something new in art [...] it creates a dynamic that brings people into the community."

The barns, he adds, have been part of the shift of Port Austin to an art-focused community. That community includes customized street-scale installations, bike racks that look like art, nautical-themed crosswalks, an artist co-op called Cove, and an artist in residence (in what else? A former barn).

"If you talk to local businesses, they've seen an uptick in travelers," Osentoski says. "Part of it is kayaking has taken off but that's also fueled some of the art travel. Once you're done kayaking, what do you do? You might go out and look at art."

The project’s first modified barn was completed in 2013. Murals — variations of cultural icons “Walden” and “American Gothic” — are painted on either end of the barn. They were created by the Hygienic Dress League, a husband-and-wife team, Steve and Dorota Coy, who are from Detroit. 

The second installation, known as “Emergency Ark,” was completed in 2015 by artist Scott Hocking. He transformed a deteriorating late 19th-century barn into a free-standing, ark-like structure. It’s called “Celestial Ship of the North.” Newell’s installation was completed in 2019, just ahead of the pandemic.

“I think we put the vision out there to see how far we could get,” says Boyle, who is vice president of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, a grant-making organization that focuses on investment in the quality of life of people in southeast Michigan and western New York. “There’s no limit to the project and I think we still have interest in creating more barn installations. It’s a matter of fundraising.”

For the first three barns, financial and other support came from organizations like the Greater Port Austin Art and Placemaking Fund. The barns were donated for use by their owners.

Photo: Catie Newell

One of the big issues in forging ahead with “53North” is fundraising. Initial plans envisioned 10 barns over 10 years. 

“It’s hard to raise dollars in a smaller community. It’s hard to get large-scale grants that would be significant enough to shore up the pieces and get another one going,” Boyle says. “When you talk about rural population, there’s not a lot of population density. What we try to lean into is tourism and economic development and rural-urban exchange of ideas, which really bring the community together.”

Newell, who had helped Scott Hocking with his barn, was inspired by the expansive landscape in Michigan’s thumb.

“The thing that struck me was this enormous sky and how long the sunset and sunrise last there,” she says. “It’s relatively flat and the horizon is so long and it’s right by Lake Huron. Barns are big but in this landscape, with the sky, they seemed small to me.”

In tackling “Secret Sky,” Newell approached her project as an architect: “What can I do that works the barn as a large architectural space and catch the shifting dimension of the sky?”

Before beginning to shape her creation, Newell had to do some structural and stabilization work. Then for the slice, a vital column and beams had to be removed. She installed a new steel column and added a roof beam. Box beams were added to strengthen the area around the cut. She got some help from structural engineer John Gruber of Sheppard Engineering PC and Charlie O'Geen of etC Construction Services. 

“I think it’s fantastic to have wonderful art projects everywhere,” Newell says. “It's important to find art in all of our spaces. It can provide a location for celebrating and learning from the places where we live and where we visit, whether we are near or far from the site."

Where to find the barns:
The Hygienic Dress League barn, 52 Stoddard Road, Port Austin.
Celestial Ship of the North 3429 Fehner Road, Port Austin
Secret Sky, 5201 North Pinnebog Road, Kinde.
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