Best of America

This Illinois Woman Turns Broken-Down Barns Into Beautiful American Flags

01-An-Illinois-Woman-Creates-High-Flying-Flags-Out-Of-Broken-Down-Barns-Dawn-Holler-WisherDawn Holler-Wisher/Country Woman Magazine

About 30 years ago, Marie Roth taught a stenciling class. When some of her students expressed interest in purchasing her work, she turned painting into a profession.

She’s 70 now, an age when many folks are starting to eye that comfy recliner in front of the TV. But chances are if there’s an old barn coming down anywhere in northeastern Illinois, Marie Roth will be there. Clad in khakis, wearing leather gloves and hefting a circular saw, Marie will pick through the jumble of wood, looking for pieces that, as she describes it, “whisper” to her. (See how this old barn turned into a basketball court.)

She’ll cart off the selected boards to her Long Grove home, where she’ll wash them and allow them to air-dry before fitting the pieces together, puzzle-like, and gluing them into place.

But it’s only when Marie starts painting the assemblage in the bold, beautiful colors loved by every American that it becomes clear what she’s creating. From leftover scraps of broken-down barns, she fashions fine wooden reproductions of the American flag. Ranging from just 18 inches long to barn door-sized, Marie’s flags have a worn, homey quality that strengthens their visual impact and appeal.

“The wood is beautifully aged by animals, humans, sometimes shot with BB’s, nailed, hammered, torn, ripped, weathered,” she says. “Recently I had wood from a floor that was marked by hooves. I used it to paint flags from the Civil War era—the marks on the wood made me think of all the marching and walking and horse soldiers.”

Marie comes by her love of barn wood naturally. Her father was a carpenter, and her grand-parents farmed in Iowa. She painted her first flag more than 30 years ago on a shipping pallet she found at a garage sale. The old pallet, she remembers, “just looked like it should be a flag.”

02-An-Illinois-Woman-Creates-High-Flying-Flags-Out-Of-Broken-Down-Barns-Dawn-Holler-WisherDawn Holler-Wisher/Country Woman Magazine

A self-taught artist, Marie jokes that she paints American flags because “I’m real good at drawing straight lines, and that’s about it.”

She’s become a passionate amateur historian of Old Glory’s 27 official versions, as well as the famous unofficial ones she paints, including the tattered flag that flew over Fort Sumter when the Union surrendered that battle to the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War.

Each of Marie’s works comes with a handwritten note detailing the history of that particular flag. She also tries to connect the wood to her customer, a goal to which fate sometimes lends a hand.

She loves the story of the time she and her daughter collected wood while “running in front of a bulldozer” dismantling an old barn. “Later, a couple contacted me to order a flag,” Marie recalls.

“When we met to discuss it, I discovered their new house happened to be on the exact spot where that barn had stood. That brought tears to our eyes.”

Don’t count on Marie to slow down anytime soon. She’s having too much fun—and her flags now fetch between $125 and $1,200.

“Creating art is something I have to do,” she says. “I hope I die with a paintbrush in my hand.”

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