By the People: The Barn

Deborah Jones,


Photo provided by Deborah Jones.

In the early 70s, having graduated from the University of Illinois with an MFA in sculpture, I returned to Ithaca with a vision of converting the 19th century (circa1880) family barn into a home and studio. My parents supported the idea by deeding me the barn with an acre of land. I renovated a section measuring 30 feet long by 22 feet wide by 25 feet high of this English style barn.


Unable to afford help, I did most of the work alone. The scope of the building project still amazes me, leaving me to wonder where that audaciousness came from. I had no building experience, unless you count childhood tree-houses and straw-bale huts built in the haymow; however, I was skilled using power tools and determined.

I began renovation by removing existing floors and partitions along with two attached sheds. At this point the barn was a shell ready for me to layout the space. I decided on a two-story layout with the second story lofts further dividing the vertical space. Laid out on three levels the barn has a vertical flow. Money was tight so, following my dad’s advice, for $125 I bought a section of an old barn in disrepair to tear down for the salvaged lumber. Deconstruction was hard work but I learned some of what went into building in addition to getting a lot of valuable material.

Working mostly alone took additional planning; an example was when I re-laid the second-story floor using hand-hewn 6 inch by 6 inch by 12 feet oak timbers as joists. I set stepladders on either side of the first floor and lifted one end of the joist onto a rung, then walked across to the second ladder and lifted the other end. Going back and forth in this way, I finally got twelve oak joists resting atop their support beams. Likewise building walls alone was a slow process.

New to building, I read up on things or asked questions of those more experienced. For the electric, plumbing, and heating system I hired professionals and worked with the person. The most painstaking aspect of building for me and not very satisfying was time spent insulating and installing dry-wall followed by taping and spackling. Nevertheless, whatever the task, I plodded along and in seven years I had a livable space. I’m glad I stuck with it and take pleasure in the outcome.


Provided by Deborah Jones.

Then, 30 years after the renovation, I decided to write and illustrate the story of my building adventure. When I started the project I tricked myself into believing that it wouldn’t take long, yet it took 10 years, two years longer than the initial barn renovation. Since there were few “before” photos or photos of the makeover process, I decided to illustrate the story using a comic book approach. I drew my first action figure with real-life qualities and a serious expression, but as the drawings developed- SHAZAM! In place of realistically rendered figures stood a distorted, unshapely little person with a quirky, upbeat expression. As my surrogate, I liked this little person; smallish she was, but a determined nest-builder who didn’t shirk from hard work.


As with barn renovation, in creating the book “The Barn Story”, I had to brush up on old skills, and learn new ones such as Photoshop, about which I knew little. To accommodate a multitude of drawings and ensure visual continuity, I laid out the pages in storyboard fashion on a studio wall and arranged the original artwork beside each page. The number of pages grew to 56 with each page undergoing several states.

The first half of “The Barn Story” describes the process of converting the barn, while the second half documents the results. The cartoon figure is present throughout, but appears more often in the first part to demonstrate how the makeover was accomplished. In keeping with the barn theme, I designed barn-shaped pages with each book housed in a barn-shaped box.

I’m always uplifted by stories of people who take on challenging tasks and stick with it until completion. This applies especially to women who defy custom and break with some gender restriction to do what they feel they need to do. I was fortunate to receive more encouragement than ridicule for undertaking the project. Although the book tells the story about my building adventure, I always hoped it would inspire others to think about what they can achieve given vision and determination.