The Hex Factory

Heiden Hexology

The Hexibition at Eckhaus

About This Project

The Hexhibition at Eckhaus is a project organized and coordinated by Erica Cohen Hamilton. She is an Anthropology major & a Pennsylvania German studies minor at Kutztown University, working in collaboration with the Kutztown University Anthropology Club and the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center. The project is intended to connect the community of Kutztown with its culture through art. 

Three Questions were posed to the contributing Hex Sign painters. Content from the original show has been edited for clarity and relevance, Only the actual Contemporary Hex Sign painters responses are included here.

Answers Provided by Ivan E. Hoyt

Master Artisan

Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen


Do you think hex signs and barn stars are the same thing? Why or why not?

Some hex signs are stars and barn stars are hex signs. When hex signs originated in the nineteenth century they were exclusively rosettes and stars and geometric in design. Fast forward about one hundred years and there is an effort to label the folk art "barn stars". I will be the first to say that is how hex signs started, with stars, but stars are such a small subset of how the folk art has evolved. Milton Hill, Perry Ludwig, and Harry Adams were some of the barn painters that painted only stars. The passage of time has given the hex sign folk art the work of Johnny Ott, John Hill, Jacob Zook, Johnny Claypoole, Bill Schuster, Ivan E. Hoyt, Rip Rossman, Don Greth, Eric Claypoole, Crissy Kent, Rachel and Hunter Yoder among others. All of these artists could paint stars but following the lead of Johnny Ott they brought so much more to the hex sign format. Today, when a patron insists on a "traditional hex sign" I show them a simple rosette or star, and almost without exception they say "I don't want that, I want a pretty one." We are a culture that honors our past but are not bound by it.


Why do you paint hex signs?

In 1972, my parents gave me Jacob Zook's "Hexology" booklet and asked me to paint a hex sign for over their fieldstone fireplace. I told them I would not duplicate the designs in the booklet but would try to design my own version. I used a hand held sabre saw to cut circles from plywood and masonite and a sampler pack of 2-ounce bottles of enamel paint purchased from the local hardware store to paint signs for my parents, my sister, and brother. I enjoyed the process of making hex signs and in the mid 1970's sold my first sign thus "ruining a perfectly good hobby". Forty-six years later I continue the process, still find it interesting, and I never tire of the challenge it presents. It is too enjoyable for me to think of it as work.


Where do you find most of your inspiration for your folk art?

I find inspiration for my work everywhere. I enjoy looking at antique examples of fraktur documents, redware and salt glaze pottery, toleware, dower chests, and other examples of Pennsylvania Dutch decorative arts. Whether in print, exhibitions, or museums, I thoroughly enjoy studying the work of early folk artists. I also get a great deal of inspiration from the requests of my patrons and collectors. There never seems to be a shortage of creativity to explore.


Answers Provided by Rachel Yoder

Illustrator & Folk Artist


Do you think hex signs and barn stars are the same thing? Why or why not?


I do believe that hex signs and barn stars are different but the same. They both derive from the same traditional motifs. Hex signs are on disks and barn stars are on barns. I grew up referring to them as hex signs and continue to refer to them as such. Especially when vending, the folk, or public, generally will refer to them as hex signs, since often they are interested in them for places other than a barn. I really enjoy saying hex signs. It reminds me of my childhood and it’s like a warm hug from my Granny Fisher. It’s a fun word to say and very unique to the PA Dutch culture. There are certainly many misconceptions that take on a life of their own when repeated enough- but I find that to be an exciting aspect to folk art- the folk’s ability to drive the way the art is received, interpreted and carried on. Folk art is a living and fluid form of art that lives and breathes, responds and reinvents itself as the living culture does. Folk art is not dead or stuck in one time or one place, it evolves and continues to be an exciting expression of everyday PA Dutch folk. I am so happy that barn stars are still alive and well and painted/repainted on barns often in our area of Berks and Lehigh Counties. My children (die Kinner) particularly enjoy finding as many hex signs along our route when travelling! It is an amazing experience for them to view and receive such amazing art work, that is directly connected to our heritage. Then to be able to go home and feel energized by the hypnotic signs to create their own. Each expression of this folk-art tradition is another thread that is sewn into the story of our culture.


Why do you incorporate hex signs and/or barn stars into your art?

I am a Pennsylvania Dutch woman with deep roots in the Oley Valley. I was raised away from my folk but returned in 2014. I started incorporating hex signs into my artwork in 2011 after meeting my husband, Hunter. Growing up I had seen hex signs and sort of understood what they were, but when I met him, he taught me how to create a hex sign. It was an extremely meditative cultural experience for me. I felt an instant connection to my ancestors and contemporary PA Dutch folk simultaneously. I was immediately hooked and continued to use hex sign painting as an explorative practice to find myself and my cultural connections. I find hex sign both aesthetically beautiful and deeply powerful as painted prayers or mantras. I have often created hex signs as a way to elevate my art work from simply being aesthetically pleasing, to being deeply meaningful to myself and other PA Dutch folk. Adding hex signs to my work adds an additional layer of tradition and reinvention to my work.


Where do you find most of your inspiration for your folk art?

I am very inspired by the old Fraktur artwork. Also, I find great inspiration from the folk-art studies of Frances Lichten. But I find most of my inspiration for my folk art from the folk! We do a lot of vending events and get the privilege of interacting with contemporary PA Dutch folk often. They inform my work through their response to it and their feedback helps to guide my future work. It’s a beautiful collaborative effort. I see folk art as not only creating something that I enjoy, but also and equally, creating something that the folk also enjoy!


Hunter M. Yoder

Heiden Sexologist


Do you think hex signs and barn stars are the same thing? Why or why not?

Hex Signs, Barn Stars, Hexefoos, Hexezeeche, Starne und Blume, are some of the names given to these things that we paint here. Perhaps barn stars could be considered the stars and rosettes traditionally seen on the old barns locally. What are called Hex Signs include animal, plants along with the geometric star designs and are done on disks which is a completely different folk art form from painting up on a ladder onto an old barn. But important thing to realize is that these signs on architecture both outside and inside buildings have appeared in Northern Europe for Centuries and are not unique to us here. And that these designs are on the furniture, pottery, tinware, books and documents of the Pa Dutch. Hex Signs/ Barn Stars are the last folk art form to evolve here and the evolution continues to this day. The name “Hex Sign” currently scoffed at by the established scholarship is popular with the growing Heathen/Pagan Community. Hex is a Germanic word for Witch, Hexerei is witchcraft. For them, unlike Christianity, witchcraft is not considered to be an evil thing but a part of their religious belief system. So much so that the Rune Schools now include Hex Sign painting in their rigorous studies. Unlike most of the secular culture we live in who view them as being, “chust fer nice ” Germanic Heathens believe in the power of these Signs for protection {talismans}and for assistance in desired intentions. Lee R. Gandee, in his book, “Strange Experience, Autobiography of a Hexenmeister” refers to his Hex Signs as “painted prayers” There is a growing Pa Dutch Heathen community.


Why do you incorporate hex signs and/or barn stars into your art?

I was born and raised in the culture here locally. I aspired at an early age to become an artist, a painter. My Father decided that if I wanted to become a painter, I should start by painting the large barn on the family farm outside of Kutztown. So I did and when I got up close to the forebay of the barn the weathered designs of eight pointed stars became apparent. So I painted them as well! The Pa Dutch culture is steeped in mysticism and superstition. Hex Signs take on metaphysical significance and are a short form cosmology or cosmogram if you will. At a time when contemporary art has forgotten what role art plays in the everyday lives of the “Folk” The Folk Art of the Pa Dutch has not.


Where do you find most of your inspiration for your folk art?

I would say this, there is an energy in the magical signs of our Pennsylvania German ancestors. It is very real and powerful. Anyone can participate in making them. In doing so you are tapping into something much larger than mere personal self-expression. As I explained to a former teacher and friend, A stream or river has run in its bed for hundreds of thousands of years maybe longer, so it is with folk magic. No one is quite sure how it works, just that it does and always has.



Eric Claypoole did not respond to the three questions posed. Instead his business associate and promoter, Patrick Donmoyer who was also included in the show provided this statement:

 

The Claypoole family are held in a special regard within the niche of folk-art & the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. According to Eric’s website, “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”. In regard to the question “Barnstars or Hexsigns?” he states on his website that “Hexsigns came into existence in the 1940’s as a way to make the barnstar a more portable art form. The designs, ranging in size from 8 inches to 4 feet in diameter, are painted on a wooden disk, and can be hung anywhere, indoor or outdoor. The term “hexsign” is derived from the Pennsylvania Dutch word “hexafoos” which means “witch’s foot”. The term was coined in 1923 by Wallace Nutting. While traveling throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania, he became curious about the mysterious signs painted on barns in the area. Being an “Auslander” or foreigner, the local farmers weren’t interested in telling their secrets. So Nutting decided to fill in the blanks and give these interesting symbols a name of his choosing. Superstitions began to arise after this and have made the hexsign a fun part of the Pennsylvania Dutch folklore. Milton Hill of Virginville, PA was one of the early barnstar painters beginning in the 1940's through the 1960's. He is noted as the first commercial hexsign painter at the Kutztown PA German Festival. He coined the phrase that hexsigns are “chust (just) for nice”, meaning just for decorative purposes. Milton was a very talented painter, originating a spinning effect in the barnstar, symbolizing a person “spinning through time”. 


The problem we have with Donmoyer's position here is as a scholar, his perspective is compromised. He can't be both a business partner with Eric Claypoole and provide an objective unbiased opinion on  the Folk Art form of painting Barnstars/ Hex Signs.  Johnny Claypoole was from Upper Darby, a welder by trade, very Irish and Catholic and moved to Lenhartsville later in life. His fame was due to the larger than life character he transformed into. The tourist trade at the time appropriated the dress and horse and buggy of the Plain people and merged it with the decorative arts of the Fancy Dutch. Johnny had the beard, the round hat of the Amish as he painted brilliant Hex Signs. His signature on many of his signs feature a caricature of that Amish style hat and beard around the double "o" in Claypoole. In many ways he also appropriated the Johnny Ott persona and after Ott's passing became the new Johnny. It was through the strength of this persona that made him perfect for Television.  Claypoole wasn't the only one masquerading as a Amishman. The whole Kutztown Folk Festival perpetrated this incongruency during the same time period of the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies into the eighties. The Lancaster County tourist trade to this day perpetuates this falsehood.


Many of Johnny Ott's Hex Signs were not based on traditional Fraktur or Barn star motifs, and neither was he a student of the Folk Art. He was a creative artist who also painted surrealistic pictures in addition to his Hex Work. He invented many of the Hex Sign motifs that today the uninformed regard as "traditional"

Together he and Jacob Zook created the tourist trade industry that featured inexpensive silk screened Hex Sign disks on masonite. However he had a deep sense of the potential Hex Signs had as vehicles for Folk magic. The Pa Dutch were very superstitious and Ott dealt with this aspect in his work as well as the written forward to one of Zook's publications. HEXOLOGY, THE HISTORY AND THE MEANING OF HEX SYMBOLS,  this is the publication Ivan Hoyt is referring to in his response to the question, "why do you paint Hex Signs"


Its been going on for centuries, that many tribes have believed in what today is called Hexerie, Hex, and today alot of it is called faith, good fortune, breaks, and good luck. The Hex is of course Penna. Dutch, now called jinks.

While we believe in it in some form or another, for instance cross fingers, knock on wood, under latter, etc. Just about everybody has goodluck pieces, charms, medals, lucky days. Religious people wear medals, statuetts for faith, poker or card players change seats and decks, when Friday falls on the 13th, the USA does fifty million dollars less business, the people just don't travel, spend or try new enterprises that day. And why don't hotels thave thirteen floors, because people think they are Hexed.


This aspect of the 'Legacy" is missing in Johnny and Eric Claypoole's work.