Finding good grain crucial for Roth’s flag artworks
Marie Roth stands near her work on display in the Long Grove Artists Guild Gallery. Roth is a painter who finds board from old, torn-down barns and then paints the American flag on those pieces of wood. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times Media
Village Tavern’s third-annual Veterans Concert & Pig Roast will take place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at the Tavern, 135 Old McHenry Road. An auction and raffle will benefit VFW Post 5151’s Operation Airlift.
The Long Grove Artists Guild currently has a gallery at 224 Robert Parker Coffin Road in the historic downtown. For more information, visit lgag.org.
Updated: August 27, 2012 6:03AM
She found three pieces of wood that had to have been near each other when in their original form, because they had the same three cuts going down them, against the grain.
When she saw the cuts, she thought about the scars that many of her beneficiaries wear, and Marie Roth knew that she had found the right medium for her next American flag painting.
“Different, but strong,” as Roth described the three planks from an old Illinois barn that became artwork for her. “I think of that as how veterans have their lives affected by war.”
Roth, a Long Grove professional artist, has found a calling in collecting the planks from torn-down barns, painting the various forms of Old Glory on them and selling them, giving new life to bits of wood that often served decades as part of Illinois history. She has donated her most recent flag creation to the owners of the Village Tavern, who will use it for fundraising on Sunday during their third-annual celebration of the area’s veterans.
For Roth, the appeal of making banners out of old wood comes from the people she meets and the stories she learns with each new project.
“I really love old wood, because it’s something I can paint, because I don’t have a lot of training,” she said Monday. “It’s very meaningful to people — not everyone, I understand.”
The 2012 Veterans Concert & Pig Roast is organized by Tavern owners Chip and Mary Ann Ullrich, and this year will include one of Roth’s creations as part of the fundraising activiites. Roth’s two-foot-by-four-foot, 50-star flag painting is a little larger than most of her works, and comes from three pieces of wood that had once been part of a barn in Whiteside County.
“It’ll bring more attention to the auction,” said Mary Ann Ullrich. “She’s put a lot of work into it.”
Roth’s interest in art began about 30 years ago, when a friend talked her into taking her first painting class; she said that back then, she never anticipated turning a structure into a banner as becoming one of her most consistent inspirations.
“This just morphed into something very interesting for me,” she said.
In the early 1980s, Roth studied tole painting, a style associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch, but found it lacking in creativity. She took another class, this time in stenciling; by the end of that session, the studio owner asked her if she would be interested in teaching what she had just learned to new students.
Roth agreed — and some of her first students were buyers from the Red Oaks furniture store in Long Grove, who said they wanted to buy some of her works.
“I walked out of there a little stunned, but I’ve been painting ever since then,” she said. “My artistic training is very little. Most of my works involved straight lines that can be measured.”
And there are plenty of straight lines in the Stars and Stripes, as Roth was soon to learn.
At about the same time, Roth visited a garage sale; laying discarded in the owner’s garage, she saw a wooden pallet. In her mental eye, she saw a 13-star, Betsy Ross-style flag in the pallet. The design attributed to Ross is the closest to a square of all the American banners; the owner gladly gave the unwanted pallet to Roth, and it became her first flag painting.
From there, 20 years and a handful of other wooden flags passed by. Shortly before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, though, Roth got a call from a niece in Milwaukee: She and her husband were renovating the building they owned, and they wanted Roth to convert an old door into one of her flags.
“She knew that I liked old wood, so he asked if I’d be interested in coming up and going through her Dumpster,” Roth said.
Roth was indeed interested, so she collected the door and brought it back to her studion, where she started to sand its aqua-blue paint off. What she discovered underneath startled her: Painted beneath the blue, onto the bare wood, were the words “Keep out.”
Roth looked into the history of her niece’s building, and found that it had once been a boarding house; the door separated the guests from an off-limits area. The artist, who said she has long been interested in politics and history, felt great satisfaction as she covered a barricade with the colors of the most-emigrated-to nation in world history.
“For me, another part of it has been myself learning a tremendous amount about the evolution of the country,” Roth said.
In the process, Roth has become a trove of history regarding the American flag. Old Glory has gone through 27 designs, most caused by the addition of new states into the Union, and Roth can share stories about nearly every one of them. Which flag was used as a pillow for assassinated President Lincoln’s head in his coffin? Roth has that on the top of her own head.
The use of barn wood as a medium began only recently, she said. She and her daughter were driving down a country road, and they happened upon a bulldozer plowing over an old barn; horrified by the loss of history happening in front of them, the two pulled onto the farm, ran up to the dozer driver and asked if they could take what he was knocking down.
“He said ‘You can take whatever you want, just don’t get in my way, time is money,’” as Roth recalled. “So we grabbed as much as we could and threw it in the car.”
She started painting flags on the planks — and word got around. Roth soon met Nancy Schumm-Burgess, author of The Barns of Lake County, who connected her with more wood from more fallen relics around the Midwest.
Including the one in Whiteside County, three pieces of which will be in Long Grove on Sunday.
According to what Roth has found, a farmer built that barn in 1885 out of wide oak flats; it stood until a major storm blew through sometime around 1900 and torn it to pieces. The mill in Edgeville reworked the planks, and they were put back to use in a new barn — but that barn was torn down in the early 1970s. As the lumber hit the earth for a second time, the son of the town’s John Deere dealer ran over and collected all that he could.
The wood sat in his attic for 40 years.
“He never did anything with it,” Roth said. “He always planned to, and never did.”
But the stockpiler got connected with the painter, and he asked her to come down, take the lumber and give it new life. Roth said that the fuel for her barn-painting passion is in meeting the folks at the old farms, and turning something they have no use for but much love for into something valuable again.
Among the pieces from the Whiteside barn, Roth found three that each had three cuts sliced into one side. She did not know what the purpose of those three slices had been, but knew they could tell a new story, when the right client came along.
That client came along in March, when a group of artists formed The Long Grove Artists Guild. Guild members then connected Roth with the Ullrichs and their celebration for veterans.
“She’s fantastic,” said guild member Georgia Cawley. “There are so many things about the flag that I never knew.”
And with a fundraiser for veterans in mind, Roth found a story that the storm-damaged, twice-torn-down planks with the three against-the-grain cuts in them could tell.
“A lot of veterans have had a lot of catastrophic events in their lives,” Roth said.
At an auction led by Chip Ullrich on Sunday, those three pieces of 157-year-old barn wood may find the next chapter in their story.