Eric Claypoole – Hex Sign Artist

Eric Claypoole – Hex Sign Artist

Eric Claypoole works aloft in the heavenly countryside of the Lehigh Valley and surrounding counties and sees constellations of stars all the time.

Claypoole, a second-generation folk artist from Berks County, restores barn stars, bringing their distinct geometrical patterns back to life, and paints hex signs, both of them classic, colorful Pennsylvania German symbols that date to the region’s founding in the 1700s.

Over the course of his career, he’s worked on more than 80 historic barns in Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, and Schuylkill counties.

It’s not for the fainthearted.

“I often ask myself, What the hell am I doing up here?” Eric laughs. “I’m standing on a ladder on a windy day, 40 feet up, tied fast to a window frame while stretching and reaching to paint a five-foot star on the gable end of an old barn. It’s insane but always fun.”

No one knows for certain why the early Pennsylvania Germans, known for decorating everyday items from tin coffee pots to blanket chests, painted stars and hex signs on their barns.

“We don’t know why there are stars and hex signs—you can ask 10 old timers, and you’ll get 10 different answers,” Eric says. “But there are theories.”

Some say it was to ward off evil or witches or to bring good luck for a bountiful harvest.

“Family life and the overall prosperity of a farm revolved around the barn for the German settlers who left the Rhineland after the German Reformation,” he says. “It was less about warding off witches and evil spirits and more about creating pleasing, decorative designs that embraced the importance of farm life and brought about good luck and good health and helped keep the red rooster—fires—off the barn roof.”

An art form that was passed down through families over time, barn stars hold special meaning, depending on the time period, as represented in their geometrical patterns, Eric explains.

“Stars were powerful symbols in all kinds of cultures over thousands of years,” he adds. “Farmers planted crops and followed the seasons by the position of the sun and stars.”

Barn stars, originally painted using shale oxide and linseed oil, can be seen in eastern Pennsylvania with anywhere from five to 16 points. A five-point star brings good luck, a six-point represents the Star of David, and an eight-point star revolves around fertility and a good harvest.

The 12-point star represents the 12 apostles, Eric says, and the 16-point star represents prosperity.


“It’s insane but always fun.”  -Eric Claypoole

In Lehigh and Northampton counties, four- and six-point stars are common, while the 12-pointer is more prevalent in Berks County. In Schuylkill County, the five-point star is commonly seen on barns.

“Many of the star configurations are perfect geometrical forms, the ancient foundation of every common angle used in modern mathematics,” Eric says. “It’s fascinating to me.”

Hex signs, with stars, tulips, hearts, distelfinks, and even contemporary designs, started showing up in the 1940s as a way to make the barn star a transportable art form that could be sold to tourists at gift shops and festivals.

Eric produces them on wooden disks of various sizes in his rural studio, which is perched on a wooded hillside in Greenwich Township, just south of Lenhartsville.

Derived from the Pennsylvania Dutch word “hexafoos” or “witch’s foot,” hex sign is a term author Wallace Nutting used in his “Pennsylvania Beautiful” book in the early 1920s.

But Eric, a purist, is more interested in chasing ghosts than witches.

Ghosts are the sun-bleached, faded etchings of original stars and other folk designs that are hidden, barely perceptible to the naked eye, on old, weather-beaten barns. Eric always looks for them on the gable ends of historic barns, searching for the etchings on shrunken, dried planks and hidden brush lines of what were once bright, radiating stars. Templates from another time, the patterns inform Eric, allowing him to recreate historically accurate stars.

A few summers ago, Eric repainted stars on the horizontal wood siding of Matt Mikol’s 200-year-old stone Schweitzer (Swiss) bank barn in Lower Nazareth Township, a quintessential agricultural icon of eastern Pennsylvania.

“He does wonderful work,” Matt says. “He did stars on one end and three on the front of barn. We found designs etched into the wood of what was probably on the exterior of the barn many years ago. It gave us a good idea good of what the design looked like originally.”

Barn stars and hex signs have been in Eric’s blood since he learned the art form from his father, Johnny Claypoole, who apprenticed with the legendary Johnny Ott, once known locally as the “Professor of Hexology.”

Ott, who owned the Lenhartsville Hotel (now the Deitsch Eck Restaurant) at Old Route 22 and Route 143, popularized the distelfinks, tulips, and hearts on hex signs, which were borrowed from traditional Fraktur designs, Claypoole says.

Ott’s colorful resin-covered works are still on full display in the Johnny Ott Room at the Deitsch Eck.

For Eric, every time he restores a barn star or hex sign, it means saving a piece of local history by channeling the work of his father and other local artists who went before, even as he chases down a ghost or two.

“Whenever I’m hired to repaint a barn, my eyes immediately search for ghosts,” he says. “I find that the owners of historic barns want to maintain the original stars and designs. After all, they’re a link to our past, a recognizable symbol of our heritage.”

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram