September 30, 2022

Starek: Artist, photographer and barn lover

I was stunned by the hand-written letter from a stranger. Not only was the letter hand written (shock, shock), but the front of the envelope was hand painted. I’m serious. I’ve never seen anything like it. Before my eyes was an envelope, the front of which was hand-painted with a red barn and quilt block. The painting was titled “Log Cabin, Barn Quilt Block #1, Racine Co., WI.” A return address (on the back of the envelope) indicated, “Ken Starek, Ackley, IA.” This gentleman had written me a nice letter concerning one of my columns about Iowa watercolor artist, Wendell Mohr, and hand painted the envelope. I made up my mind that I had to meet this Ken Starek.

Ken hand paints all the envelopes for his cards and letters. And he writes a lot of cards and letters. In fact, the people he writes to, friends and family (or total strangers like me), have come to expect that their envelopes will be hand painted. If not, they feel slighted. And the cards and letters get saved and framed. Hanging on the wall of Starek’s beautiful, old, Colonial style brick home in Ackley, is a quilt with sketches of cards he sent to his wife, Retha. The sketches of barns with quilt blocks have titles like, “Hole in the Barn Door,” “Spider Webs” and “Barn Beams.”

My analysis of Ken’s fine-art work, and I’m no expert, is that his work is an interesting cross between Iowa artists Grant Wood and Wendell Mohr. He utilizes felt-tip pens, ink, and watercolor to produce original, Iowa folk art in impressive detail, quality and quantity. He might be one of Ackley’s, or Northern Iowa’s, best kept secrets.

Every morning, around 5 a.m., Ken sneaks down to his basement “studio” to switch on Garrison Keillor and spend a delightful, relaxing couple of hours in peace, harmony, and creation. August is his busiest month, with 30 some birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions that need cards and letters.

Like his father, Ken is an avid letter writer, photographer and artist. An ISU graduate, he considers himself a “barn-o-logist.” His wife, adult children, Danell and Darl, and friends call him a “Barn-o-holic.” On most trips, they do not let him drive, as they know he will stop multiple times to photograph barns. The alternative is to take away his camera, which has happened on more than one occasion.

Men have all sorts of addictions, like drinking, gambling, and carousing. Ken is addicted to barns. (Retha thinks it would have been cheaper to be addicted to one of the other vices.) And for Ken, not just any barn will do. He is particularly fond of the hand-cut, pegged-post-and-beam barns. To see the wear from animal use on stalls, with perhaps numbers scratched on doors, representing the number of loads of oats to a bin, or hay to a mow, appeals to Ken’s sense of art. He goes to work with his camera, then paints what he shoots. His philosophy is, “Get a shot while you can.”

Ken chuckles, “If you’ve got a couple of hours to kill, get an old farmer to talk about his barn.”

At 66, Ken is the Hardin County Representative for the Iowa Barn Foundation, doing what they can to save and restore (and in Ken’s case, document) Iowa barns. In 1930, Iowa had approximately 300,000 barns. It’s down to 100,000 today, and losing approximately 1,000 per year, or about one per township.

Ken has a lot of work to do. His camera is always with him.

Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526 or email him at