Painter of the Stars by Lee S. Heffner and Patrick J. Donmoyer

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Painter of the Stars
The Life and Work of Milton J. Hill (1887–1972)
by Lee S. Heffner and Patrick J. Donmoyer
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, 144 pp., hardcover $35

The most familiar visual symbols of Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture are the colorful circular designs known popularly as “hex signs,” which adorn countless items marketed to visitors to Pennsylvania’s Dutch Country, from key chains to peel-and-stick wallpaper to ball caps that read “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” More properly known as barn stars (Scheierschtanne in Pennsylvania Dutch), these decorations have for generations been a fixture of bona fide Pennsylvania Dutch folk art.

Painter of the Stars documents the life and artistic legacy of one of the most gifted and prolific barn star painters of the 20th century, Milton J. Hill, a lifelong resident of Berks County. Authored by Lee S. Heffner, a grandson of Hill, and Patrick J. Donmoyer, director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University and a leading expert on barn stars, and with a foreword by Ivan E. Hoyt, a contemporary hex sign painter, this richly (indeed, lavishly) illustrated volume begins by sketching Hill’s biography against the backdrop of his Pennsylvania Dutch forebears, which included other barn star painters, notably his father and grandfather. The book continues by describing the techniques that Hill employed to produce his art, which represented both continuity and innovation.

Important topics addressed by the book include the “magical misconceptions” surrounding barn stars that were advanced in travel literature and by the tourist industry, as well as the interesting situation of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center in engaging with the public fascination with “hex signs.” The center’s most enduring legacy is the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival (today, the Kutztown Folk Festival), which began in 1950. During most of the 1950s and 1960s Hill was one of the leading artists at the festival. Between this nationally popular annual event and the Hill family farm, which was also his workshop and gallery, Hill was able to showcase his work to a wide and appreciative audience.

This elegantly written and beautifully produced book is recommended to anyone with an interest in American folk art and culture.

Mark Louden
University of Wisconsin–Madison