Reclaiming the Past

Scottsburg artist Harrison
to display work at State Fair

Barn plaques capture historic
area barns, houses and mills

By Lela Jane Bradshaw
Contributing Writer

(July 2010) – When Dorrel Harrison lived in upstate New York, his art was inspired by the covered bridges that dotted the landscape. After moving to Scottsburg in 2003, he began hunting bridges similar to those he had built miniature replicas of while living in New England. However, his new home was to yield new structures that caught his woodworker’s eye.

Dorrell Harrison

Photo provided

Scottsburg's Dorrell Harrison crafts
Indiana barns out of pieces of wood
reclaimed and restored from
the same buildings.

Soon, Harrison, 66, found himself crafting Indiana barns out of pieces of wood reclaimed and restored from those very buildings. Over the past few years, the Indiana Artisan estimates that he has crafted close to 100 plaques celebrating historic area barns, houses and mills.
For each piece, Harrison interviews people associated with the building to capture “special memories” associated with the history of the barn or house. He then writes a story that is placed on the back of each plaque, resulting in a piece of art that not only captures the visual image of the structure but also preserves the history. Harrison notes that this is a way “to keep the heritage alive.”
“It’s kind of like the covered bridges,” he explains. The wooden barns “are becoming a thing of the past.”
During the Indiana State Fair on Aug. 6-22, Harrison will show his barn plaques in the famed Normandy Barn on the Indianapolis fairgrounds. In 2009 Harrison presented a limited display of his work and was invited to expand his exhibit for 2010. This year’s exhibit will include several of his popular plaques showcasing memorable Indiana barns.
Debuting will be a new line of Harrison’s work that will now be available in a larger size. In honor of this year’s display, a DVD explaining the process by which the plaques are created will be available.
Bob Saueressig, artist in residence at the Madison Artisans Gallery, cites “nostalgia” as part of the appeal of Harrison’s work. He explains that every piece represents a real structure. “Each barn is an actual barn,” and the wood used in the plaques typically incorporates pieces from the barn being portrayed, he said. However, many customers see in the art a representation of an ideal barn from their own past.
Saueressig cites comments such as, “‘That’s kind of like my grandfather’s barn!’” and “‘That looks like the barn where I used to play for hours!’” as proof of the personal resonance the viewers have with the plaques.
The process of creating a barn plaque begins by photographing the structure. The image is downloaded to a computer where it is sized to fit the final plaque. The artist’s next step is to “cut the image up like a puzzle.” Using a Dremel tool, the pieces of the barn are carved out of barn wood specially selected for having “grain that would replicate the structure.” When painting is complete, the finished piece is mounted on a piece of reclaimed barn wood.
The resulting work of art may then be hung on the wall or displayed on a shelf. “We take a lot of care to accent the detail of the barn, mill, or house,” Harrison says. He credits his wife of 45 years, Kathleen, as the “quality control expert” who carefully examines every plaque for any error that may have slipped in during the crafting process.
Many of Harrison’s plaques are made as commissions for customers looking to capture the memory of a barn or house. Harrison explains that he typically makes two plaques for each commission and gives his clients the option of selecting the one that they like best. The other plaque is retained by the artist and takes its place in his showroom, which is available for viewing by appointment.
Harrison has a program in which he loans out works from his showroom to area businesses, allowing them the opportunity to display his unique art. Presently, such exhibits are taking place at Bear’s Furniture Gallery in Madison and the Coffee House on the Square in Scottsburg.
“When people come in, it’s a nice conversation piece,” he says, noting that the plaques make good “ice breakers.”
Last year, Harrison teamed with “Living the Country Life” magazine to present a Classic Barn contest. The competition drew photographs from across the nation, and the winner will be presented with a barn plaque honoring the first-place barn. Harrison reflects that “it takes money to keep a barn up – it’s hard to do that.” Harrison hopes his art will inspire barn owners to work to preserve what structures they can so that future generations can enjoy not only the plaques on the walls but also the barns in the fields.

• For more information on Dorrel Harrison, visit: www.BarnMillPlaques.com or stop by The Artisans Gallery at 325 E. Main St., Madison, Ind., to view his work.

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