The Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center is an open-air folklife museum and research center dedicated to preserving and celebrating Pennsylvania German folk culture, history, and language in a unique educational setting at Kutztown University.

100 Barns

100 Barns: Selected Works of Eric Claypoole (1971-2021)

To pre-order your copy of this Special Folklife Series Publication, click here for a printable order form.

How do you measure the impact of a productive and creative life? For barn star artist Eric Claypoole of Lenhartsville, it’s by counting barns. Beginning this summer in July and just ending in September, Eric lifted his paintbrush to complete the 100th barn of his career.  This monumental achievement marks an all-new threshold for the tradition of barn star painting in the region, and extends well beyond the statistics for any known barn artist in the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

This 100th barn is located on private property in Albany Township, Berks County, where Eric and three colleagues painted a total of nine stars across the barn’s newly restored forebay, gable ends, and a large strawshed addition. In the style of the revered barn star painter Milton J. Hill (1887-1972) of Virginville, Eric’s work featured geometric eight-pointed star bursts in yellow and black with elaborate borders in radiating gradients of blue.  Each five feet in diameter, these stars shine forth from a vast field of red where the barn stands proudly tucked within the rolling agrarian landscape of the Kempton hills.

This landmark in Eric’s career snuck up on him quietly. In all honesty, Eric had forgotten how many barns he’d worked on over the years and never kept a formal count of the scores of barns spread out across 9 counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  Although he had begun painting 50 years ago in 1971 at the age of 11 along with his brothers under the leadership of his father John P. “Johnny” Claypoole (1921-2004), the overwhelming majority of the barns Eric painted were in the years following his father’s retirement in 1995.  It was that year that Eric took up his father’s mantle and began doing the “high-work”–scaling 40-foot ladders to reach the heights of gable ends and standing on planks suspended at 20 feet above the barnyard to paint stars in series across the forebays of local barns. In the past 26 years, Eric has averaged 4 barns a year, and the numbers continue to increase.  Eric is already planning his 104th barn.

Eric’s father Johnny Claypoole learned to paint from Johnny Ott (1880-1964) of Lenhartsville, the self-proclaimed “professor of hexology” who pioneered the contemporary commercial art form called “hex signs” today – a synthesis of traditional motifs with standardized meanings and interpretations. Although Ott never painted barns, and instead plied his trade on commercial signboard, tinware, furniture, and other items, his protégé Johnny Claypoole expanded his repertoire to include the repainting of many of the region’s barns–completing somewhere around two dozen before his retirement.

Eric grew up working with his father, helping him prep his painting surfaces, and set up for shows such as the Kutztown Folk Festival. Eric and all of his brothers helped their father with barn painting jobs, but barn painting became Eric’s vocation. A seasoned restoration carpenter by trade, Eric approaches the art of barn star painting with an appreciation for weathered historic surfaces and an eye for complicated geometry. He has not only mastered the art–he has also encouraged younger generations to continue the tradition. Eric’s nephew Bill Reidel helped Eric in the mid-2000s with six barns, and fellow painter Andrew Shirk has painted 20 barns with Eric. Two Kutztown University students, Joanna Blessing (’13) and Sarah Edris (’22) have each helped on two barns, and I’ve been grateful to have worked on 21 local barns, 18 with Eric and 3 solo.  Eric has done more than any other living person to ensure that this colorful, vibrant tradition will continue throughout the 21st century.

Eric’s career will be honored this fall with the future release of a photographic catalogue of his colorful works, entitled: 100 Barns: Selected Works of Eric Claypoole (1971-2021) a Special Folklife Series Publication of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, slated for release in early November 2021.

To pre-order your copy of this Special Folklife Series Publication, click here for a printable order form.

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