Redeeming value

Indiana artisan Harrison creates
art out of old barn wood

Old barn boards are given
new life as artistic plaques

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

SCOTTSBURG, Ind. (November 2009) – Dorrel Harrison hates to see a thing of beauty go to waste. Before old, dilapidated barns can be destroyed, he takes the boards and creates a new object so that others may continue to enjoy them long after the physical structure is gone.

Dorrel Harrison

Photo provided

The Madison Artisan
Gallery has carried
artist Dorrel Harrison’s
creations since it
opened late last year.

After spending 33 years teaching health education and driver education in rural schools in upstate New York outside of Albany, he retired 10 years ago and pursued a woodworking hobby. Harrison and his wife moved to Scottsburg, Ind., to be near their son, a UPS pilot.
Harrison’s hobby consisted of crafting plaques to resemble covered bridges out of reclaimed barn wood. “There was a local New England woodworker who made similar items. I kind of imitated what he did, but changed the product and made it my own,” said Harrison, 65.
But he found there weren’t as many covered bridges in Indiana, so his son suggested he craft barn plaques instead. His first barn plaque was for Sand Creek Post and Beam in Nebraska, and since then he has completed more than 50 barn plaques.
He also spent 15 years working as a semi-professional photographer. These skills come in handy as he photographs each subject matter before drawing up a template for the plaque.
Harrison cleans the old wood, searching for the grain and certain textures. “I want to keep its appearance,” he said. He often adds windows and cupolas as a finishing touch.
The result is “a contrast between a puzzle and a carving,” Harrison said.
His artwork has been carried at the Madison Artisan Gallery since it opened 14 months ago. “It’s something that is fairly unique,” said gallery owner Bob Maile. “It was widely popular when we opened the gallery and still is.”
The Madison Artisan Gallery is a regional gallery that carries work by 40
different artists and artisans. Its main business is in making custom tables, but the gallery was added to “showcase some of the better quality pieces in our area,” said Maile.
Harrison’s plaques sell for $89.95 at the gallery. “They are one of the better quality items in the gallery,” Maile said. “I’ve not seen them sold in any other place.”
In fact, Harrison’s work compliments the rustic old building that houses the gallery, a former wagon and carriage factory. The building contains the original flooring and is rough but useable with its big beams and tin ceiling, said Maile.
Harrison said of his plaques, “Every one is a little unique and different in its own way.” He makes two plaques for every commission, giving one to the client and adding the second one to his inventory.
In 2008, Harrison was designated an official Indiana Artisan, of which there are currently 111 members. He is also vice president of the Scott County Arts Council.
He had a special exhibit of his Indiana barn plaque collection at the recent Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis. The exhibit was located on the second floor of the Normandy Barn at the fairgrounds.
As with many old barns, the Normandy Barn caught the attention of Harrison. It had been moved to the fairgrounds after numerous people donated money to move and restore it. Harrison had a Normandy Barn plaque on display and said he may continue with the exhibit at another location in the future.
He frequently completes plaques on commission. “Once customers see my work, they generally have one in mind” for him to recreate, he said. Harrison includes what is known of the barn’s history with each plaque, which can be framed and placed next to the plaque if desired, he said.
Along with “Living the Country Life” magazine, Harrison is sponsoring a nation-wide Classic Barn Contest. The top two finalists will receive their own custom-made plaque from Harrison.
The one type of barn Harrison has not replicated from reclaimed wood that he would like to craft some day is a horse barn.
“I like to give something new life,” said Harrison. Turn it into “something with a different purpose. It’s kind of like the Christian life, where we can be reborn in Christ.”

• For more information on Dorrel Harrison’s hand-crafted plaques, contact him at (812) 889-3369. A sampling of his Handcrafted Barn, Mill & House Plaques can be seen by visiting www.BarnMillPlaques.com.

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