Eric Claypoole at the 2012 Kutztown Folk Festival
The following interview is an excerpt from the book, by Hunter M. Yoder, Heiden Hexology, Essays and Interviews, 2012
Today I have the privelege of interviewing the current reigning Meister of Hexology, Eric Claypoole,
"He is carrying on a long family tradition. Johnny Claypoole, his father, began painting hexsigns in 1962. Johnny was taught by the legendary Johnny Ott, the self-proclaimed "Dr. of Hexology". Johnny's career in painting hexsigns spanned nearly four decades. He was featured on the Charles Kuralt "On the Road" program and on the game show :What's my Line?". He was also a regular on the Captain Noah children's program. Johnny and Eric have been exhibiting their wares at the Kutztown Folk Festival continually since 1962."
"Shortly before his father's death in 2004, Eric took over the family business, including painting the traditional designs on barns. He lectures on the history of barnstars and hexsigns as well. Eric is one of the few remaining barnstar painters in the country"
I had the pleasure of being a friend of the Claypoole family as a young man and went to high school with Mark and Kevin. Eric was quite abit younger and the family was large, all boys if I recall correctly with one long suffering sister, Faith. Anyway this was the late sixties and early seventies. So here we go.
1. Hey Eric, Recently when in Philadelphia, I ran into some of Johnny's Hexes at the Terminal Market in Center City. Tell us something about Johnny's connection to 'The City of Brotherly Love'
johnny grew up in upper darby and moved to berks county after ww2 he bought the farm and moved up a few years later. after he took over johnny ott's business,,he did shows in philly at gimbels and philly folk festival and reading terminal market where he met mike who owns the general store. mike has sold his signs there for a number of years.
2.What stories can you recount about Johnny and Johnny's relationship? (Johnny Claypoole/ Johnny Ott)
my dad was a welder for many years always trying to find himself going from job to job looking for his nitch. he was always fasinated with the barnstars and one day came across an add in the paper from johnny ott looking for an apprentice. johnny ott took to him and showed him how to paint in 1962. when he died 2 years later,,my dad took over his legacy and started at the kutztown folk festival in 1965.
3. The first set of 'Barn Charms' I repainted were on my Dad's barn about a mile or two from Virginville, I believe they were Milton Hill's They were embossed right into the barnsiding, Eight pointers with a outer border of curly que lines and raindrops between the rays. What can you tell us about Milton and his work? Did he invent that spiral Hex sign?
miltonhill was a barn painter and too my knowledge was comissioned by the hex tour in the 40's to repaint the barnstars around the hex highway area and surrounding towns. my calculations tell me he was born in 1888,,i met 2 of his daughters,,they were touching 90 when i talked to them.ester derr still lives in virginville and i talked with her after working on her house. she told me alot about her father and thanked me for my father naming one of his signs "the hill star" as a young boy he was fascinated with star designs and was incuraged to draw them in school around the turn of the century. i held one he drew when he was about 12. she gave me some pictures of him to photo copy and told me alot about him. in my opinion,,milton hill was the most phonimenal barnstar painter there will ever be,,his designs were very detailed.milton only painted stars and rosettes and coined the phrase "chust fer nice" milton hill was comissioned by the first folk festival to demonstrate barnstar painting. tourists wanted to take them home so they started painting them on disks for the following year,,some say johnny ott was the first to paint on a disk. the name "hex sign" was coined by wallace nutting in 1923 in his book,,"pennsylvania beautiful" but the first hex sign sold on a disk was pretty much believed to be sold at the 2nd folk festival by milton hill. johnny ott started what i call the modern hexsign with hearts,birds and tulips on them. all those symbols came from the fraktur art,,marriage and birth certificates and decorated tolewareand dowry chests. the symbols used represented positive things out of the bible,,hearts meant love,tulips represented faith ,hope and charity,,bluebirds of peace and happiness,,distlefinks(thistlefinch,gold finch) for prosperity. borders represented smooth sailing through life. the star design is as old as time,,the dutch didn't invent it and they didn't give hex signs to each other as gifts. the hexsign was created at the folk festival,,the barnstar painted on barns is over 200 years old.there were no names of hex sign or barnstar back then,,only stunna (stars) and blumma( flowers) for the barns. it is my belief that they started out as date boards built in the stone gable ends of barns usually with a star design , initials and the date the barn was built. the oldest barnstar i repainted is 1819 just 1 mile north of lenhartsville. historian and folk art specialist don yoder believes the were painted around the end of the civil war,,but that is when alot of barns were painted red,,paint was mass produced and cheaper.priar to that,,barns weren't painted,,but the star design eventually were painted on the forebays in the 1830' and 40's. the "ghost" of a barnstar and the gable end recesses of barnstars and "dateboards" are the proof in my opinion that they are 50-60 years older then yoder believes. we have showed him pictures and gable end recesses and he is now curious about them.there are no pictures of them in his book but we have found about 40 barns with evidence of gable end recess barnstars since i repainted the one in lenhartsville. patrick dunmoyer has found one just out of bally in montgomery county that we believe in 1786. we have toured alot together looking at barns along with bob emsminger and greg huber,,barn specialists.
4. How important are your outer borders on the circumference of you Hex signs? What different styles are there and are they just a showcase for the artist's abilities and inventiveness?
borders we to represent smooth sailing through life. alot were solid black borders but we found alot of scalloped and saw tooth(mostly in lehigh county) slash marks in a triangular pattern were common around here. i was told 10 years ago that my hex signs had to have 22 scallops around the border,,the were called water wheels. i have since painted mostly every sign with 22 scallope around it,,11 on either side of the half circle.
5. In between the rays of your barnstars I believe you use equilateral crosses frequently, do they function just as a place holder or is there a symbolic purpose?
the 12 point star has always been my favorite barnstar,, now i call it the perfect geometrical form. when layed out properly,,it has every common angle known to man. i believe the 30'60'90 square came from this design and was told it was the basis for every foundation used to build the cathederals in europe. you can connect points to have a perfect equilateral rectangle,,triangle and square. the 12 points represented the 12 apostles,,the pinwheel in the center was people spinning through time and the rosetters (the crosses you mentioned) 4 point stars if you will were to ward off evil disease and pestilants. the red dot was to represent christs blood.
6. Has there been a change in attitudes amongst the 'PA Dutch' regarding the magical aspects of Hexology? The old schoold crew would always dismiss Barnstars as being "chust for nice"
i believe meanings and representations could easily have changed over the years from generation to generation just from saying,,i think granpa said this meant this and one or 2 words different could change things. i think they were symbolic to them,,basic good luck good health and prosperity,,fertility and protection from lightning. there is alot of whitch stories attributed to them,,legond or wivestales,,i don't know the truth but i think the "witch doors"(doors painted on the barns) on barns were simply to make it look symetrical. i do hear alot of witch stories at the folk festival.
7. I recall as a young man in Berks County feeling a connection between Hex Signs and the Blue Mountains. It seemed that the closer to the Mts I got, the more elaborate and intense the Hexes would become. I know you live closeby to those Mts, The Deitsch Eck and such, whats your take on that?
the dutch immergrated from germantown north to the blue mountains leaving their barns in every county north of philly to here. at one time berks county went from philly to new your border. the indians were pushed over the mountain but berks county as we know it reminded them of their homeland. some say the distlefink looking backwards was symbolic of them looking back at the homeland. i have seen alot of elaberate barns all over and in the south mountain area. lehigh and berks have so many but berks seems to be the epicenter of barnstars.
8. Do you recall or have you heard of "Bumbaugh" or Mt Bummy?
i remember him from the folk festival as i was very young then,,but my dad knew him pretty well,,he was quite a charactor and he was quite the ladies man as i have been told. he was said to be an erbalist and possibly skilled in the pow wow mysteries.
Eric Claypoole in his Lenhartsville Studio
9. I recall your whole family painting signs in preparation for various festivals including the Philly Folk Festival, The Kutztown Folk Festival back in the late sixties early seventies and Johnny packing em all up in his VW Microbus Any thoughts regarding Hexology and Psychedelia or those times?
just a coincedence with psychedilia and the 70's
10. I saw thos pics on your site of your work on stone animals. Whats going on there? Is it the animals or the stones that seems to have a certain power?
i repainted the distlefink at the heritage center in reading a few years ago,,it is cast aluminum and was donated in 1984. my father painted a daddy hex on the eyes and a few other artists painted the rest. ruthan hartung did the designs and i repainted it close to what she wanted but much brighter anc colorful. the bear on my website is one of the boyertown bears (www.bearfever.org) it is a fiberglass form from chicago made by cowpainters. the first ones there were cows in chicago said to represent the cow that kicked over the milk pail that knocked over the keroscene lamp that started the chicago fire.
11. Who has and where are the best collections of Hex Signs to your knowledge? Besides the Deitsch Eck Hotel, dining room, which I love, where are the Johnny Ott's today?
What do you consider your Father's best works?
the deitch eck is definately one of my favorites but milton hill will always be the most phoniminal star painted that ever lived,,i wish i had one of his. i held a few of them already.i have restored a number of barns painted by hill,,every star on the barn looks the same but each is individually different in a suttle way only milton hill could do. i have a collection of my fathers and a few otts in my studio. one of his friends has over 75 pieces of my dads. the folk festival has a nice collection of 4'ers. it is hard to say what is the best work of my fathers,,maybe his legacy keeping johnny otts work alive and passing on to me. the name claypoole is english,but his mother was pa dutch,,(steigerwalt) so he was half dutch. i consider myself 1/4 dutch as my mother was pure irish. i am only an artist,,but i am blessed with keeping up the tradition of hex signs and barnstars. i do lectures 10-12 times a year and have done 3 or 4 with patrick dunmoyer,,we became good friends over the last year. he is a very talented young man,,very well spoken,,very knowlegable on the history.
12. Any thoughts on Hexology internationally? How about the state of the Deitsch Kultur reawakening in Berks County?
hexology,,barnstars and hexsigns are what i consider to be a very interesting,,mystical,,sometimes contraversial ,extradornidary art form. the star is as old as time yet every culture has its beliefs in the powers of the star, whether it be mind over matter or the star with the astrological aspects and energy of the universe,,we will argue this forever. ask 10 old dutchmen about barnstars,,you will get 10 different answers. its all part of the art. life is a wonderful gift,,enjoy it everyday!! thanks,,,eric claypoole www.claypoolehexsigns.com
Eric Claypoole with the author, Hunter M. Yoder, 2012
another minor point ,, hexsigns and barnstars have nothing to do with the amish,,although they came from the same areas of the platnate and switzerland and speak the same dutch dialect,,they are known as the plain people and paint their barns white. people ask me all the time,,are these amish? look on ebay,,you'll see why,,every silk screen says...amish dutch hex sign. the silk screen industry put meanings to everything and i learned the meanings growing up,,but i got to a point and said,,who says so,,so i started asking. i like to say what they represent,,not what they mean,,there is a big difference between hand painted and silk screens.
Many thanks Eric Claypoole!