SIDNEY – When Robert Kroeger, of Cincinnati, took up painting in 2010 after retiring from his career as a dentist, he had no idea that his work would become the basis of a book that chronicles a disappearing aspect of rural life.
That book, “Historic Barns of Ohio,” which was published by Arcadia Publishing in March, features paintings Kroeger has made of old barns in each of the state’s 88 counties and essays he wrote about each structure’s history.
Kroeger will exhibit his original paintings and conduct a book signing at the Cameo Theatre, 304 S. West Ave., April 24, at 10 a.m. Admission is free.
The event is a partnership project of the Shelby County Historical Society, the Senior Center of Sidney-Shelby County and Gateway Arts Council. The partners will also exhibit some artwork by local artists during Kroeger’s appearance. And the visiting artist will donate a painting he plans to complete on site during the event. It will be raffled to a lucky ticket-holder.
Kroeger’s interest in the art form goes back a long way. As a child, he was taken to the Butler Art Institute in Youngstown by his father, who was a commercial artist. But his serious entry into the world of art came with his retirement.
“Since I knew I was going to do this, I had to go back to the basics. I had to learn to draw,” he said recently. He read books and took lessons online. A Milford artist, Nancy Achberger, also helped him.
“I took some workshops from her,” he said. “It was like going to art school. Then I jumped in and did some paintings, and they were awful, but you have to start somewhere.”
A visit to a gallery in St. Augustine, Florida, piqued his interest in a technique called impasto. That led to more workshops, including one with South Carolina artist James Pratt.
According to Kroeger’s website, impasto oil is “thick, first of all, and it’s applied ‘alla prima,’ which means ‘one go.’ In other words, the painting is completed in one or two sittings, as long as the second is close behind the first. Unlike traditional oil painting, the thickness of impasto – an Italian word meaning “dough” or “mixture” – makes the paint harden relatively quickly, meaning that the artist can’t return and continue or change it a few days or weeks later… Impasto oil reflects light in different ways because it protrudes from the canvas. You can view the painting throughout the day and, as the sun’s light shifts, you’ll see a different painting. It’s like magic.”
Kroeger uses palette knives to apply paint to canvas or Masonite panels.
In 2012, he was intrigued by an old barn, recognizing it as a relic of a way of life that fewer and fewer people remember in the 21st century. Because modern farm machinery won’t fit in these historic buildings, many of them have been torn down or left to deteriorate. Kroeger decided one way to preserve them was to create paintings of them.
“As time passed, I visited many barns… I met the owners and heard their stories, learned about early Ohio history, and put almost all of my barn paintings into fundraisers for nonprofits. And, in the summer of 2019, the Arcadia Publishing contacted me about writing a book. It features paintings and essays about an old barn in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. Over 60 paintings are in color,” he wrote. Those illustrations are just a fraction of the 950 paintings he has completed.
What makes his pictures even more interesting to viewers is that, as often as possible, he frames them with pieces of wood from the pictured barns.
“I do mostly 9 inches by 12 inches or 11 inches by 14 inches. I can capture a barn in that size because … it’s harder to make a bigger frame. Some of the wood I use is over 200 years old, and some is merely a century old. Since I’m trying to preserve history in these projects, the barn’s own wood adds another dimension to the painting. Actually, even though it takes a long time to make a barn-wood frame from rustic lumber, it gives me a lot of joy, which I didn’t expect at first,” he said.
When he visits a county and makes a tour of its historic barns, he offers a study painting of a barn in exchange for wood.
“There’s some nostalgia if the painting is framed from that barn,” he added.
The Shelby County barn that is featured in the book is in Botkins. It’s owned by Kent Buehler. The Auglaize County barn is a well known round one owned by Tim Manchester. The Darke County barn is one of seven on property owned by Gretchen and Chris Snyder. The Miami County barn is at the Johnston Farm and Indian Agency.
The paintings don’t always exactly match the photographs Kroeger takes of them to work from.
“The one advantage a painter has over a photographer is that a painter can move things around. So sometimes I do put green foliage in the trees even though there was snow when I was there. And corn rows. If possible, I include a few chickens or a goose. After all, it’s a farm,” he said.
When he’s not searching for barns to paint, Kroeger can be found on a golf course – he’s written several books about golfing, particularly in Great Britain or Ireland – or running a marathon.
“I’ve run 91 marathons. I’m hoping to run nine more before I die,” he said.
In Sidney, he will paint on site in the Cameo Theatre, telling barn stories as he works. The event will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In addition to his paintings, work by several Shelby County artists also will be on display. Among them will be oils by Myra Carpenter, of Sidney.
“I also do color pencil drawings and charcoal drawings,” she said. “My husband, Bill, is a beautiful woodworker. He makes all my frames. They’re all handcrafted.”
Her work encompasses animals, landscapes and seascapes.
“After I retired, we did a lot of travelling, and we took pictures. Then I would come home and paint what I saw,” she said.
Other featured work will include pieces that have been acquired by Gateway Arts Council.
“This exhibit is a chance to give the works in our permanent collection a wider audience,” said Ellen Keyes, director of the arts council.”Art is important, and we want to help get it out there to the community. It’s a privilege to be able to work with the historical society and the senior center. They’re solid, community organizations.”
Tilda Phlipot, director of the Shelby County Historical Society, is pleased that Kroeger’s work and that of local artists will be exhibited together.
“The old-time farm life that Robert references in his paintings has all but disappeared. Since our mission is to preserve history, it’s wonderful to be able to display artworks that might get people to reflect on how that past has brought us to the present. At the same time, his Sidney visit allows us to give an opportunity to local artists to put some of their work before the public. Promoting and supporting Shelby County is also an important part of our mission,” she said.
The executive director of the Senior Center also sees the event as a positive one for the community.
“(It’s) a wonderful way to kick off spring, support the arts and promote our local history,” Rachel Hale said. “The Senior Center of Sidney-Shelby County is happy to be partnering with the historical society and Gateway Arts Council by providing the venue for this event. I am looking forward to watching Mr. Kroeger paint and listening to his experiences as he traveled Ohio, finding the barns he would include in his book.”
The books are available to purchase now at the Ross Historical Center, 201 N. Main St., and at the Senior Center, 304 S. West Ave. The price is $25. They will also be available, April 24, at the Cameo Theatre.
Also for sale in both places now are raffle tickets for the painting Kroeger will complete during the event. Tickets cost $5 each or $10 for three.