Twenty years ago the Barnstormers descended on the quiet town of Cameron North Carolina. Legend tells conflicting stories about who gave them the name, but it’s clear on the genesis of the project. David Ellis grew up in Cameron before making his way to New York City and becoming a sort of hip-hop darling of the art scene. In 1999 he gathered artist friends from NYC, and as far away as Japan, and together they spent a summer turning old decaying barns into works of art.
To get there we left Hwy 87 and meandered more than ten miles through countryside on Hwy 24/27. You enter Cameron at a small intersection dotted with antique shops and bisected with a railroad track. The various websites that talk about the Barnstormer Murals all indicate one of the antique shops will have a map to show you exactly where they are. We stopped at Sullivan’s on the left and Sandra hooked me up. But she also warned me, some of the barns are gone!
‘Pokemonk Plus’ is on Barn #1. The paint may be the only thing holding this barn together. My daughter opened the door and took a peek inside, but you can tell from outside that the floor has caved in. The barn sits over a gully and most of its contents are now below it.
This is the front side of Barn #1 and the back side. Unlike most of the barns included in this project, this one is not made of wood but of tin panels. It’s difficult to see in the photo, but the back side was a series of small boxes climbing up to the roof. They’re weathering badly.
Barns 2-5 are across the street. This is the most photographed barn in the series, a variation of the famous 1930’s ‘American Gothic’ painting by Grant Wood. I’m not sure who painted this version, some of the paintings have graffiti tags but none of them are officially signed. And, it’s unclear whether the tags are from the artists or some wannabe artist that came later. I’m not a huge fan of the steampunk genre, but I like the juxtaposition of steampunk and a more traditional art work.
The right side of the ‘American Gothic’ barn.
Barns #3 and #4. This whole corner was kind of interesting because there were several dead animals scattered about in various stages of decomposition. They were far enough off the road that it was unlikely they were hit by a car so Jim decided it was a coyote den of some kind. There was a large deer on the ground in front of the Japanese art.. But there were parts of that deer closer to the ‘American Gothic’ painting that I apparently walked over or near 4 different times before my daughter pointed them out.
Based on my limited knowledge of Ellis’ art, I think this had to be his work. It’s very intricate and was probably quite impressive when it was new.
These are also from barn #5. I’ve seen photos of the Indian mural from just a few years ago and it was much more distinct. Now, you can’t read the text at all. The back side is much more distinct. Either the artist used some kind of amazing paint or it’s been freshly painted.
No#7 is a departure in that it’s a house.
No #8 is a barn next to the house.
We finished checking out the barns at this intersection and drove up Stanton Hill Road to check out barns 23 and 24. #23 is technically still there and you can see it from the road, but it’s on private property. We totally didn’t feel comfortable stopping on the side of the road and hiking past their house and out to their barn. #24 is also still there, but it’s been painted solid green and is also on someone’s private property.
We went back to the intersection and started the loop from Red Hill Rd to Bryant, to 24/27. This barn is probably number 9 or 10. The yellow sign on the door is a ‘Posted’ sign indicating it’s private property and No Trespassing! We stood on the road to take a picture because those yellow signs dot the entire property. Whoever owns this barn does NOT want people going near it. This was the only barn out of 9-12 that was still standing.
We found some of the barns in the #13-18 cluster. Of the six, it looks like maybe 4 are still standing, but they’re extremely faded and so covered in vegetation we didn’t get out of the car because snakes!
We looped back to the antique shops for a pit stop and intended to hit 19-22 on our way out-of-town. We stopped at The Market at Muse Brothers Store to check out the antiques. They have a coffee bar and make espresso and stuff but Jim and Cait never got that far. They found a cat on the front porch and kind of dissolved into squishy cat snuggling people for the next 30 minutes. Jim tried to convince me the cat wouldn’t let them leave the porch. Right. We looked as we left town but didn’t see any more painted barns. It would seem the last few are also gone.
Several websites indicate Ellis and his friends nip into town every few years to freshen up the paint and make sure the barns are in good repair. They don’t, and they’re not. This area has been hit by several major hurricanes just in the last 3 years. And to be fair, the barns were old and derelict when the Barnstormers chose them, 20 years ago. If you’re interested in seeing them, or photographing them, I suggest you do it now. The Barnstormer Murals are fading and falling down very quickly. Soon, they’ll just be a part of Southern folklore.
Most of the antique shops don’t have websites or social media, but there’s a directory on-line that lists them. We went to The Market, Sullivan’s and Now and Then. There’s a small convenience store across the street for drinks and snacks. They don’t have a bathroom…but they do have the okay-ish port-o-potty I’ve ever seen.
To see more photos of the murals through the years…click here.
I couldn’t find social media for David Ellis and it looks like his website is fairly outdated, but I did find this video interview where he mentions NC and starting his artistic journey by painting tobacco barns.