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Smallwood artist Jerry DeWitt draws creative inspiration from his farm past

When Jerry DeWitt paints a barn, there's a bit of the gentle clanging of cowbells mixing in with the watercolors.

That sound echoes back to his grandfather's Depression-era farm at the end of a lane in Bedford County, Pa.

He was just 2 years old when his father left home for good and the youngster was uprooted from Lansing, Mich., to live with his grandparents.

And in between trips to the pasture to the hand-dug well for another bucket of water, or out to the shed for an arm load of firewood, the sights and sounds and smells of farm life wrapped themselves around Jerry's memory, eventually finding their way to paint and paper more than 30 years later.

Many of those works will be displayed in the show, "Carroll County Farm Heritage: Paintings by Jerry DeWitt," opening Sunday, March 18, at Carroll Community College, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster, with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m.

DeWitt says he lived on the farm for just three years when he was a child, then returned to Michigan to live with his mother, who eventually remarried. But the farm stayed with him.

And even today in his Smallwood studio, he says, "I can still hear those cowbells. My grandfather had about three milk cows, and when you woke up you could always hear those bells down in the pasture. And you know when you walk in a barn at night and the cows are in their stalls, it gets so quite except for the sound of the cows chewin'."

His youth was filled with something else, too. During high school back in Michigan, there were early sketches and oil paintings.

"I remember my art teacher, Elsa Richards. I had just finished up a pretty little bird — it was an oil painting — and she picked it up and said, 'I'm keeping this.'

"There were a lot of my paintings in high school that disappeared," DeWitt says.

But he still wasn't quite smitten by that captivating need to paint. That wouldn't come for another 20 years.

Right out of high school the Korean War was on, so Jerry enlisted in the Navy in 1951. But he ended up on the other side of the world in the Atlantic fleet as an electronics technician.

"That really wasn't my desire," Jerry remembers. "I wanted to be an underwater demolition technician, but my request for UDT school was never sent in."

Finally, at the end of his four-year enlistment, he was accepted in that school, "But I was angry and I didn't re-enlist."

He got out and became a house carpenter building houses in Maryland and Florida.

Years later, with his wife, Kris, and four children, Jerry answered his calling — back on the farm, with paints and brushes instead of water bucket and firewood. The family went to Florida for a visit to his wife's parents. Jerry stayed behind in Hagerstown.

He had a week all to himself. So he went to a five and 10 store in town and bought a set of watercolors and some brushes and then headed out to a barn he'd spotted many times along Interstate-70 on his way to a house construction site.

DeWitt was 37 when he sat out there on the east side of Cosen's Barn with his new set of paints.

"That was it. Time disappeared," he says. "Something was opening up inside of me, and I could hear those cowbells. I could smell my grandfather's barn."

It was a hot summer day and he could feel his lips blistering up, "but I didn't think about anything else except that barn in front of me. I said that I wasn't moving 'til I get this thing done."

He hasn't stopped painting since. More than 200 paintings of barns, outbuildings and birds now hang in homes from Alaska to Florida. His work has been featured in American Artist magazine, with gallery exhibition in Maryland, Montana, Alaska and Maine.

To complement the spirit of his subjects, Jerry surrounds each painting with a handmade frame of weathered barn wood he crafts in his garage workshop. Some of the paintings are framed in actual wood he's salvaged from the same building he's painted. There's even a painting of the beloved Maryland Wye Oak framed with lumber from the famous tree after it was cut down.

And all of Jerry DeWitt's paintings have the essence of a child lost in the smells of a July hay mow and the sounds of cows grazing at sunup.

Visions of 'Carroll County Farm Heritage'

The exhibit of works by local artist Jerry DeWitt, "Carroll County Farm Heritage: Paintings by Jerry DeWitt," will open Sunday, March 18 with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Babylon Great Hall at Carroll Community College, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster.

This collection features farms of Carroll County, where he lives and paints, and will be on display through May 3.

The exhibit is free. Normal hours are Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and closed Sunday (except for the opening reception).

For additional information, call gallery director Maggie Ball at 410-386-8256.

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