It’s a hot, summer Sunday on the Plains. Perhaps you attended the country church this morning for a dose of the Word and a visit with neighbors. Back home, you have been working outside this afternoon, bending over the vegetable rows or tinkering with the old tractor.
You stand and make your way into the barn.
For the moment, you can make out nothing. Your eyes blink and strain to adjust to the dim light in the lofty space.
Iowa artist Michael Wilson was hesitant to paint barns.
“‘Iowa Artist Paints Barns’ is so cliche, yawn,” he said.
But artists, like any professional, are best at what they know. For Wilson, it’s design and the Midwest.
Wilson grew up in Persia, Iowa, and now lives in Urbandale. He has worked all sorts of jobs from a beef packing plant to warehouse labor. He landed in the arts and was a graphic designer at Woodmen of the World for 22 years. In 2011 he quit his full-time job and took the leap into full-time painting.
Wilson said he knew it was something he had to do.
“I couldn’t not do it,” he said.
The pull of the arts was something that wouldn’t go away. It’s a big risk, but he feels at peace about it.
Wilson’s exhibition, “The Horreum, ut Sacellum (The Barn, as a Chapel)” is full of contrast, like the contrast the eyes see from light outside to dark inside. Wilson said he hopes people see the intentional interplay of opposites, “sacred vs. secular, barn vs. chapel, contemporary substrate vs. traditional subject, dark vs. light, Latin vs. common English, etc.”
Other artists have presented the beauty of solitary barns placed in landscape. They have raised awareness for the disappearance of these landmarks of the plains. Wilson’s images immerse you in the sense, feel and smell of the place.
Many Midwesterners have a farm-place they can associate with their family heritage. Often there is an emotional affinity associated with the place that we may romanticize in our memories. This series is not only a personal reflection of a meaningful place in the memory of the artist, but it provides a universal context for all to take something away from the experience.
Some of us have no experience with farmyards and barns. Some of us may have no relationship with the synagogue or place of worship. Wilson invites everyone to come to the place of intersection and work it out.
“I injected the reverent atmosphere of a chapel into a barn. This suddenly elevated a common, rural out-building into a spiritual place and gave these paintings their voice,” said Wilson.
Each of the 20 oil paintings in the series has a Latin title and English translation. Wilson sees his role in life, in part, as translator. He visually translates the messages of rural subjects and landscapes with oil and canvas.
Titling the pieces in Latin helps the viewer to make the connection between what they actually see and what it could represent. While painting the third in the series, “Ultimum Judicium Wall (Last Judgment Wall),” Wilson got the idea for Latin titles.
“It reminded me of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco of the Sistine Chapel. Again the contrast entertained my brain; the common barn versus the Sistine Chapel,” he said.
With the mindset of interplay between artistic elements, Wilson has thoughtfully infused each piece with meaning and purpose. For instance, one of the most striking in the series is “XII - Numberum Signatorum (Twelve - number of those who were sealed).” He has abstracted the interior of the corncrib, as least symbolically, as the sun streams into the right side of the crib creating repetitious bands of light. The 12 rays of light represent the bondage of the 12 tribes of Israel in Egypt. The viewer is placed inside the corncrib, which gives the feeling that these walls are prison bars, keeping you from the light.
He is interested to see “how well [he’s] translated what these paintings wanted to say.”
Wilson is an intentional yet spontaneous artist. He had an idea for this series. But he also allowed the creative process to have a strong hand in the outcome. Letting go can be an intimidating process, especially when there is a lot riding on the outcome—work that sells to put bread and butter on the table.
“In my previous career as a graphic designer, I was so accustomed to planning, preparation and working toward a deadline that I just wanted to get comfortable with letting go of the handle bars and letting the inner artist work, unrestrained and unedited,” Wilson said.
This inner conflict plagues most artists because the impulse of creativity and vision battles with the analytical side of the brain for dominance. When artists allow themselves to be free of constraints the result of the work can be surprising, even to them.
Wilson said upon reflection of the completed series that what he saw was a deeper influence.
“I discovered that what I had done was to combine my experiences as a child on a typical Sunday growing up in a small Iowa town. Even when removed, we judge all other horizons through our mental and emotional filter of ‘home.’”
His Sunday routine as a child was to go to church with his mother and siblings. In the afternoon his father would take them out to the farm. This dichotomy was not a point of contention in his family. It was just the way it was.
Imagine lazy days with your feet up on the porch railing. His grandmother would cook a large midday meal. Wilson would explore the farm buildings with his cousins. These early childhood experiences romanticized his memories of the place.
Wilson invites viewers to think about what affects them the most.
“I really hope people get this conflicted feeling of visually seeing a barn and the reverent feeling of being in a chapel, church or temple,” he said.
Image Credit: Michael Wilson, “Crucem Partare (Cross, to Bear),” oil, 36 × 24 inches. (Michael Wilson)