Sunday, July 8, 2012

Highlighting a print by John Page: elegant geometrical roof domes on barns and chicken coops

John Page, “Chicken House”, 1984, color intaglio, 35.5” x 23.5”, Image is courtesy of Roy R. Behrens. [1]

While doing research for another project I inadvertently found “Chicken House” by John Page (b. 1923) in the 1985 exhibition catalog “Iowa Printmakers’ Invitational Exhibition, Traveling Exhibition.” Under the auspices of the Iowa Arts Council, John Huseby organized and curated the show. Regarding Page, Huseby writes the following description in the exhibition catalog, “At the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, John Page, a former [Mauricio] Lasansky student, has been teaching printmaking for a number of years.”[2] John is now professor emeritus, having retired in 1988.

A wonderful pair: L: Hen House, Engraving, 8", 1976, Allamakee Co. Iowa; R: Hen House, Engraving with watercolor, 8", 1976

John mentions that the main motivation for “Chicken House” was an old abandoned hen house that, as he says, “I found in northeast Iowa, off a gravel road near the schoolhouse we owned in section sixteen in Allamakee County. It was rather weathered and weed-surrounded. It was surprisingly small (one had to stoop to go inside), and I later found it was a Sears catalog kit especially for farm wives to raise chickens for their eggs.” [3] Page developed his hen house studies by recording the building in the condition and environment as he found it (see above, engraving and engraving with watercolor). More than documentary, with these images he seems to bring out the lyrical and poetic “ruins” which is perhaps a play on the Roman ruins engraving/etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. As if referencing Piranesi, Page imaginatively gauges the elements in the scene in order to suggest the golden rectangle geometry that seems to be implied in the compositional center and structure of the print.

Viewing the engraved images as studies John provides this insight into “Chicken House”:

Looking more creatively, I saw how the horizontal drip-line of the dome was just the half point of the face and that a circle beginning with the dome could be made to complete (partly the shadow line), the dome and face making a complete circle. The chimney pipe could have reference to the Golden Rectangle. I was doing a lot with that proportion in other work, and that tends to project to what you see. You will notice that the rooster’s head is right at the focus of the whirling squares. You will also notice that “proper perspective” is not seen on the width of the windows as they recede or on the shingles on the dome. I rather like the way the aquatint leafy green part came out and the continuation of the square motif on the upper sections. [4] 
It’s interesting that John liked the “continuation of the square motif.” Perhaps it is a metaphor that he appreciated finding the chicken coop near property on “square” section sixteen in Allamakee County, Iowa. From these images it’s apparent that John can draw very well and are indicative of his artist sketchbook habit.

Tonsfeldt’s Round Barn, 1918, Le Mars, Iowa. Photograph by versluis, 2012

Discovering John Page’s print, “Chicken House” was a wonderful reminder of the unusual and unique beauty of round barn architecture. Shown above is the Tonsfeldt’s Round Barn in Le Mars, Iowa and it’s an especially well preserved example of early twentieth century round barn architecture found in Iowa. Interestingly, the barn has a center silo that provides both feed storage and a supporting column for the structure.

In 1916-18 H. A. (Peter) Tonsfeldt was being progressive when he envisioned his iconic round barn. He wanted the efficiency of round barn technology and beauty of a classical, Renaissance style cathedral dome to display his prized polled Hereford bull and purebred cattle. Apparently it took two years for Zack Eyres and his Le Mars, Iowa Construction Company to build the 5200 sq. ft., 82x68 feet (25x20.7meters) round wooden barn. The barn, completed in 1918, still exudes fine craft and exceptional quality. Herman and Clara Lang purchased Tonsfeldt’s farm in 1928. After Clara’s death, the farm was sold and the new owner’s donated the barn to the Plymouth County Fair Board and in 1981 the barn was moved to the fairgrounds in Le Mars.[5]
  1. Image taken from “John Page – A Retrospective Exhibition in Three Parts” (catalog), University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, 1992.
  2. Huseby, John. Iowa Printmakers. Des Moines: Iowa Arts Council, 1985. n.p. Print. 
  3. Page, John. “Chicken House color intaglio.” Message to the author. 5 July 2012. Web.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Horlyk, Earl. “Repairing Le Mars' historic Round Barn.” Daily Sentinel. Ed. Tom Stangl. Le Mars Daily Sentinel, 15 Oct. 2007. Web. 3 July 2012. <>.

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