Scott pointed out the rafters on our first visit to the Empower Youth (EY) Ranch. He explained that part of the barn might have been built in the 1930s, as indicated by the spaced-out patterning of the boards across the ceiling beams. It was a common Depression-era practice, he told us. Farmers would construct barn roofs with scraps of wood in the absence of better materials.

Still standing, though perhaps a bit worse for wear, the old part of the barn became an afterthought with the addition of a 22-stall horse barn in 2010. With this newer segment of the barn set to become a home for local students’ 4-H projects, Scott and Lori expressed a hope that we might take an interest in the barn’s historic wing – if we were willing to take on its challenges.

The barn’s previous owners christened it “The Happy Place” with teal letters scrawled over the door. Although we are unsure of the mysterious origins of the name, it does seem to suggest the kind of warmth and energy we want to cultivate in this space.

“The Happy Place” is now the first site of SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing. We want to reclaim this disused barn and make it a home for creative exploration. With the help of an incredible team of paid Empower Youth interns, we have begun the hard work of transforming this forgotten space into a functioning project hub. Upon completion, the barn will include a studio/lab in which to host workshops and classes, our personal studios, and a space for showcasing new projects, ideas, and artworks. With the goal of rendering the studio/lab functional in time for July workshops, we set to work cleaning and re-imagining the barn’s rooms. 


The Tack Room

At first, the barn’s tack room seemed a perfect option for our studio/lab because of its size and shape. Thanks to its sunken floor and cinder block walls, the room stays relatively cool on hot days, and it comes complete with a built-in bookshelf and a row of saddle-racks perfect for turning into a work counter.

Together with two hard-working interns, we started the process of cleaning the tack room’s muddy floor and dirty walls. We had heard it was prone to flooding and took note of the broken sump pump in the corner, hoping we would find a better solution.

We left feeling satisfied with the work we’d done, but when we returned later in the week after a significant rainfall, we found the floor partially flooded and damp. Frustrated but determined to restore the tack room, we set to work once again, this time with a group of volunteers from Bethel’s Community Christian Church. Unfortunately, after scooping out the piles of mud in the room’s corner, we discovered the source of the flooding – a small crack at the base of the far wall through which muddy water continuously trickled in. Without the funds, materials, or expertise we would need to fix a problem of this magnitude, we have been forced to abandon the tack room for now and focus our efforts on the adjacent room.


The Studio/Lab

After refocusing our energies on the large open space under the hayloft as the site of our studio/lab, we spent the course of a week cleaning both the room and the loft with the help of both interns and volunteers.

There was quite a bit of hay to clear out at first. We donned masks and goggles to deal with the mold and dust rising up from the hay piles. As we cleared out the space, we encountered quite a few surprised critters who had made their home in the formerly abandoned barn. Among our fellow inhabitants were snakes, toads, and a curious rooster affectionately named Colonel Jeffrey Dahmer for his diet of chicken nuggets. Other not-so-pleasant finds included a petrified cat carcass in the loft and a years-old chicken egg in the studio/lab ceiling.

Through our effort, the studio/lab began to take shape. We vacuumed, scrubbed, and pressure-washed the room from top to bottom. We removed old boards from the walls and salvaged wood from the condemned red barn to replace it. Together with the interns, we restored found and donated furniture and started planning how the room would come together. Our plans include a barn-wood and saddle-rack counter, teal stools, a wicker settee, two white bookshelves, built-in cabinets, and long work tables. We even made an “ART” sign to make the room official.

On Friday, June 23rd, Clermont County experienced record rainfall. 2.29 inches fell within 24 hours, breaking an 1896 record and causing flash flooding all over the county. One brave intern joined us in the barn as we tried to keep our hard work from washing away.

By midmorning, the tack room was already three inches underwater, and the newly cleaned and prepared studio/lab was starting to flood from the cracked pavement in the far left corner. We turned on the wet vac and sucked up as much water as possible.

As the storm picked up, however, water began rushing in from all sides, filling the studio/lab with more than an inch of water in some parts. We frantically moved everything away from the flooded rooms and onto cinder blocks. The walls in the adjacent wash stall, which we had claimed as our private art studio, became like rushing waterfalls, but at least the room’s built-in drain kept it from flooding.

No such luck in the studio/lab. Unfortunately, the rooms in the barn sit below ground level. This fact, coupled with the broken and uneven concrete, creates a recipe for chronic flooding. The only way to truly confront the problem would be to remove the old concrete and raise the floor. We might also need to invest in a drainage system for storm runoff, and the barn roof will someday need to be replaced.

With our weeks of work and future plans for the project in jeopardy, we felt a little discouraged, but we remain determined to provide a comfortable space for creativity and exploration at the Empower Youth Ranch. We are looking into temporary fixes as we continue to raise funds for and awareness around the project. We will keep working on the studio/lab and will find ways to make it as functional as possible until we are able to meet our goals.

Stay tuned for updates as we continue moving forward.

Posted by:SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing

SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing was a process of serial socially engaged research facilitated by artists Francesca Fiore and Hillary Wagner in collaboration with the rural community of Bethel in Appalachian Ohio. From 2017 to 2019 SOIL SERIES took many forms including conversations, public programs, projects, and collective imagining. A drawing in the most expansive sense, SOIL SERIES was an exercise in relational mark-making. By creating the conditions for new conversations and possibilities around artmaking, the public, and social imagination, SOIL SERIES proposed social drawing as the generative engine for community-initiated action.

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