Thirty-five years ago, environmental artist Mark Mendel from Massachusetts painted poetry on the sides of four large barns in Goodhue County. Each barn poem reflected one season of the year.

The Four Seasons project, sponsored by the College of Art and Design and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, reflected Mendel’s belief that the “environment plays a part in the way you see this piece -- outside -- you have to experience it in the real world,” he said in a Sept. 27, 1983, article in the Republican Eagle.

Mendel asked for farmers who would be willing to have poetry painted on their barns. Twelve locations were offered. “We should have done the months,” he said.

Much of the Mark Mendel's winter poem was covered up when an addition was made to this barn along Highway 19 southwest of the Anderson Center.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Much of the Mark Mendel's winter poem was covered up when an addition was made to this barn along Highway 19 southwest of the Anderson Center. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

He chose four barns that were easily visible from the road, set up scaffolding, and using stencils in all-capital letters, painted the poems on the barns.

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Mendel knew that barns weather. They need painting. They need remodeling. They fall down.

That ephemeral nature of the barn poetry was part of its attraction to him. In fact, at the time, Mendel requested that the words of the poems not be published, preferring that they live only on the barns.

Today, some of the poetry is still visible. Four miles south of Red Wing on County 1 Boulevard, the poem for fall decorates the side of a tall barn on the east side of the road.

In spite of Mendel’s request, the poems were published and the fall poems reads:

“BREATHING IN LEAVES ASHES --

THE WINGS’ COURSE AND THE TRACTORS’

TURNING OVER SHADOWS --

DRAWING THE HARVEST INSIDE US.”

This poem for fall is faded, as Mark Mendel planned, but the barn poem for spring has disappeared completely.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
This poem for fall is faded, as Mark Mendel planned, but the barn poem for spring has disappeared completely. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

A few years after the poems were painted, the spring poem, on a barn just north of the County 1 junction with County 6, disappeared when the barn was taken down.

The spring poem read:

ONLY WIND SPEAKS

IN THE EMPTY TREETOPS --

THE MUTE FARMER DRAWS A FISH

IN THE MARCH SNOW

The winter poem is on County 19 just north of the junction with County 6. A few years after the painting project, the owner needed more stalls in the barn so he had to make an addition that partially covered the poem.

“It pulled at the strings of my heart to do it,” Dan Mjolsness said in an article in the July 4, 1993, Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Only the top line is clearly visible today, but the poem said:

“WIND WALKING AFTER THE STORM

TRACKS FILLING WITH MOONLIGHT --

STARS IN A MARE’S SILHOUETTE --

FENCED SNOW WAITS FOR DAWN.”

The final poem, just southwest of the Anderson Center on Highway 19, is the best-preserved of the bunch. The old barn now houses Hobgoblin Music and Stoney End Harps and the summer poem reads:

“GREEN LIT LIMBS FAN GLANCE --

SHIRTLESS CONTOURS IN THE DOWNPOUR --

ANCESTORS FOLDED INTO VALLEYS --

HONEY IN THE BURNING HIVES.”

If you go...

Name: Fading barn poetry

Address: Southwest of Red Wing on a 15-mile loop of highway formed by Highway 19 Blvd., County 6 Blvd., and County 1 Blvd. (Bench St.).

Admission: Free. All barns are on private property, so please view them from the road.