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Another advantage of backyard hens


I have a hunch that the following scene happens only on one farm in the whole wide world so pay attention. You are driving down a two lane highway in Ohio when you pass a farmstead with a chicken coop in easy view through your windshield. In front of the coop stands a middle-aged woman with a kind of vacant air about her, cracking an egg on a fencepost and gingerly letting the white stuff ooze off onto the ground to separate it from the yolk. She tosses the shell back to the hens to eat. By now you probably have slowed almost to a stop because surely the poor woman has lost her mind from the hectic pressures of modern farming. She seems to be rubbing the yolk between the palms of her hand. A dog laps at the egg white drooling to the ground. By the way, she is also barefoot.

Unless you are an artist, and then maybe only a certain kind of artist, you are not going to believe what is going on here. The woman in the hen yard is Pat Gamby who with her husband Steve, has been farming at this location for 22 years. This is your typical Midwestern dairy farm except that it is organic, but neither Pat nor Steve is typical in any ordinary sense of the word. Besides being a farmer, Pat is a professional artist who started drawing at age four and, without any formal training whatsoever, was actually painting pictures on commission when she was still in high school. Steve, besides being a farmer, played minor league baseball until he got smart and realized that farming (and playing softball on my team) was more fun. I’ve found excuses to put them in several of my books, most recently Holy Shit, so readers might be familiar with them already. I thought I knew them fairly well too until I heard about this crazy, barefooted woman breaking eggs on fence posts to feed her dog and tossing the shells out to feed her hens.

Here’s the story. In their startup years in farming, Pat began selling her paintings, typically of rural scenes or animals like the one above, at juried art shows to help pay off their farm mortgage (she and Steve were also raising three children). Recently, with the kids out on their own and Steve retired from milking cows to concentrate on less strenuous kinds of farming, she decided to go into painting full time. She and Steve built a studio right there in the barnyard, cleverly incorporating into it the décor of a traditional barn.

About that time she learned about tempera as a paint medium instead of oil or water. Tempera is egg yolk mixed with earth pigments and water and with it an artist can render uncommon detail to a painting beyond what is obtainable with either oil or water colors. Andrew Wyeth was the master of egg tempera and Pat admires his paintings exceedingly. “Also, with tempera, I’ve learned that there seems to be an almost unlimited number of unusual color tones you can mix.”

There is no better place to paint for an artist using tempera than on a farm with a small flock of hens in residence. Pat says that she needs to get a fresh egg about every day because the yolk starts deteriorating and stinking fairly soon. So that’s what she’s doing out there in the hen yard — gently rubbing a yolk between her hands to get the last of the white off without breaking it. Most artists use a paper towel to do this “but sometimes I forget to bring one along,” says Pat, “and I want to crack the egg right there in the lot so the chickens get the shell and the dog gets the white.” I remind her that most artists would keep their shoes on when visiting a chicken coop. She just grins broadly. “I love going barefoot in the summer. I suppose people driving by think I’ve lost my mind.”

Her full time painting venture is off and running already. She has a website now ( Recently, she signed a license with Crossroads Original Designs in Bucyrus, Ohio to do a series of paintings from which the company will sell prints in their national catalogs. Meanwhile, for those of you who delight in authentic details of farming, Pat says that if painters using tempera want to rub the yolks barehanded (if not barefooted), it works better with hens that are being fed corn rather than oats.

P.S. The above painting Pat calls “Scolding Molly.” She explains: “While I was painting the horses, the Amish owner kept scolding the one horse, Molly, because she kept turning her head. Little did he realize that I liked her turning her head away.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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