Fading past: Artist captures disappearing era of grain elevators

For The Republic

GREENFIELD — Cathleen Huffman circulated through Twenty North Gallery surveying her work, a collection of watercolor paintings of small town Indiana’s grain elevators.

She gave a status update on each one as she passed it.

“That one is gone. That one is still standing. This one, I’m not sure,” she reported.

She paused in front of a painting of the Fairland grain elevator and related a recent telephone call from a friend living in that area.

“He said it’s a good thing I documented this because it’s being torn down as we speak,” she said.

Artist Cathleen Huffman has made it her mission to chronicle a disappearing relic of Indiana’s agricultural heritage: the local grain elevator. Grain elevators, found near the railroad tracks, have long been a feature of the small town Indiana skyline but are falling into disuse with the progression of time and technology.

A reception will be conducted in her honor from 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Twenty North Gallery, 20 N. State St. Huffman will be on hand to talk about the project and the individual grain elevators pictured in her artwork.

The 28 watercolors hanging in the gallery represent only half of Huffman’s body of work. She painted her first grain elevator — the Greenfield grain elevator located on West Osage Street — in 2004.

As president of Greenfield Historic Landmarks, historic preservation was already a cause dear to her heart; photographing and painting these disappearing structures quickly became a calling.

“There is a character to historic architecture that needs to be documented and preserved,” Huffman said. “Grain elevators are representative of the importance of agriculture in our state.”

In June of 2015, an opportunity arose for Huffman to bring more public awareness to her cause. After 11 years of photographing and painting grain elevators, Huffman applied for Bicentennial Legacy Project status for her work.

Bicentennial Legacy Projects are those that have received official designation by the state of Indiana as projects which promote and highlight the best of Indiana’s heritage. With Indiana’s 200th birthday of statehood being celebrated on Dec. 11, more than 1,368 programs, events and activities have received Legacy Project status.

Huffman submitted her application and then received a phone message from Perry Hammock, executive director of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission. She was worried that her project idea had been rejected, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

Hammock was calling to help her through some of the fine points of filling out the Legacy Project paperwork — to praise her work.

“He was so nice and encouraging, optimistic and motivational,” Huffman recalls. “I wanted to go out and start painting grain elevators right then.”

Word of Huffman’s project got around. The article in the Greenfield Daily Reporter (“Elevated Art,” July 9, 2015, p. A4) was reprinted in the “Indiana Economic Digest” the following month, which caught the eye of Bruce Selyem, chairman of the Country Grain Historical Society. He, too, commended her on her work.

Huffman understands that grain elevators have outlived their usefulness and is now an advocate for repurposing the old buildings before they are beyond rescue. She cites the Elevator Brewing Company, located in the abandoned grain elevator in Marysville, Ohio.

“The need for their original use is past,” she said, “but for many, adaptive reuse is possible.”

The exhibit will be on display at Twenty North Gallery until the end of December. The next stop for the collection of grain elevator paintings is the Rapp Gallery at the Indiana Landmarks Center at 1201 Central Ave. in Indianapolis.

Huffman plans to continue her work of documenting Indiana grain elevators. She recognizes that there are still parts of the state she hasn’t been to see if the elevators are still standing or if they have been demolished. She is discouraged when she arrives at a location only to find remnants — a foundation, a structure so badly neglected that it is beyond restoration, or, as in one case, an elevator found mostly in pieces in four dumpsters.

“There is definitely a sense of immediacy,” Huffman said. “I have to hurry.”