Farm Art Event at Missouri Farm Gaining Popularity

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Even the cattle enjoy the art displayed around the Harrills' farm in Lebanon, Missouri, although the bovines have been known to disturb the paintings wired to the fence.
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For Bill's 70th birthday, Vera commissioned the mural spotlighting Bill on his Oliver tractor.
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Vera and Bill Harrill hope everyone enjoys Art at the Farm as much as they do.

Still life paintings decorate the woven wire fence separating the yard and pasture owned by Bill and Vera Harrill. Paintings of flowers nestle among the hibiscus near the back porch; portraits of tomatoes stand in the garden between pole beans and beets; animal portraits hang outside the hay barn and stack against hay bales inside.

Art at the Farm, a two-day event near Lebanon, Missouri, was Vera’s idea. Rather than organizing a street festival to benefit the local art guild she helped found, she suggested using the Harrill farm and the Ozark Hills beyond it as a festival backdrop.

“I wanted people to have a deeper appreciation of how art can enrich your life,” says Vera, 76. “That, combined with the natural beauty here, was a nice mix.”

Visitors who bump down the Harrills’ gravel lane June 6 or 7 will find paintings, pottery, crafts, photography, fiber art, jewelry and quilts displayed under canopies or on the gazebo and sun porch, and in the milk and hay barns. They can visit with the 40 artists from Kansas and Missouri, chow down on barbecue sandwiches, or lounge in lawn chairs circling the Harrills’ 300-year-old Osage Orange tree. Guild members conduct painting demonstrations; poets read their work; a bluegrass band performs in the front yard; volunteers help children paint pictures and operate the pottery wheel set up in the barnyard.

“It’s the whole package,” says Vera. “The singing, visiting and viewing art. The object is to enjoy the day.”

Visitors agree. “I’d never been to an art festival on a farm,” says Virginia Applegate, 50, from Rolla, Missouri. “The view. The garden. Having no traffic or loud music. It’s lovely.”

When Bill retired in 1985 from working in the Alaskan oil industry, the Harrills returned to run a small cattle operation on the 260-acre farm that had been in his family since 1919. Always interested in the arts, Vera set up a studio in an empty milk barn. “I tend to paint what’s in season,” she says. “If we have apples, I paint apples. If we pull beets, I paint beets. I like to do sunflowers and morning glories.”

“Whenever I lose her, I can find her out there painting,” says Bill, 79.

The Harrills mingle among the 300 to 500 visitors who come from as far away as St. Louis and Kansas City. “We try to circulate and meet everyone,” says Vera. Vera points attendees toward the community singalong on the sun porch or explains the meditation labyrinth, an ancient art form, she mowed into the tall grass. Bill, in overalls and tattered hat, has never met a stranger. “A lot of people like to talk; I try to accommodate them,” he says.

“If Bill and Vera were our parents, we wouldn’t need so much therapy,” says Roberto Regalado, guild member. “They are a real-life Norman Rockwell painting.”

Proceeds from a Sunday afternoon auction, along with donations, raffle sales, concessions and commissions from art sales, nets about $1,500 for guild operating expenses.

Merging art and farm has its hazards. Bill’s calves play havoc with paintings hung on the woven wire fence.

“Somehow they unwired my paintings,” Linda Spencer, an exhibitor since the festival’s origination in 2000, says as she laughs. “I got tired running up and down the hill and picking them up.”

Readying their three-acre yard for the festival takes all spring. The Harrills weed early gardens, plant flowers, put new gravel in the rock garden, cut grass and trim trees.

“Mom is a list maker,” says Joy Thompson, 51, the Harrills’ daughter from Anchorage, Alaska, who helps in the preparations. “We just look at her three-page list and start down it.”

Under a canopy of broadleaf oaks, visitors are met with a living portrait of rural America. Cows drink in the pond, ducklings nap in the flower beds. Haze drapes the Ozark Hills in the background. The old well, whetstone and rain barrels honor the Harrill family’s past. A barn-sized mural of Bill sitting on his green Oliver tractor, which Vera commissioned for his 70th birthday, dominates the yard.

“We like having people come, relax and enjoy art in a natural setting,” says Vera. “My philosophy is that life is pretty tough. You should have a good time every chance you get.”

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