Sacred Signs

Posted Nov. 06, 2009, at 7:19 p.m.

The candles were lit. The paint brushes were ready.

All Jj Starwalker needed was something with which to cover her head.

She reached out and picked up a green, felt-brimmed headpiece sitting nearby, tucked her long blond hair underneath, and gave the hat a gentle pat to fit it snugly on her head.

With that, Starwalker was ready to continue working on her latest hex sign, which is going to a client in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Generally speaking when I’m working, I wear a hat,” Starwalker said, sitting at a desk with assorted paint cans on top in her in-home studio in West Corinth. “It’s a symbol of the fact that this is a sacred act, so the tradition is, cover thy head in the presence of divinity, and so I generally do.”

Starwalker wears a head covering of some kind whether she’s making a hex sign for a client who believes as Starwalker believes — that the hex signs hold power and energy — or whether for a client who merely wants something pretty and interesting with which to decorate their home or barn.

Hex signs are traditionally seen in areas such as Pennsylvania and the Midwest, where German settlers likely brought the practice with them from the old country. Anyone who has driven through the countryside in Pennsylvania has probably seen the circular signs, usually on the outside of a building, with colorful signs and symbols such as stars, flowers and birds, painted inside the circle.

Starwalker said she ships most of her hex signs to clients outside Maine, but she is starting to see more and more hex signs around the Pine Tree State, particularly in northern areas.

And even though there are more Mainers of Canadian descent than, say, of German or Dutch, she felt strongly about moving her business, Dutch Hex Signs, from North Carolina to Maine almost two years ago because she wanted to be back in the northern part of the country.

Starwalker said outside interest in her work sometimes heats up in the fall with Halloween and the coming of winter, and she enjoys riffing on the witch aspect of the season as it relates to her art. On a recent afternoon she had small witch statuettes in her studio, and a sign proclaiming “The Witch is In” was perched in one of the windows of her home.

That’s all for fun, however. Starwalker wants people to know just because the word “hex” has, for some people, had a kind of evil connotation — such as, putting a hex on someone — the hex signs she and others make are meant to encourage good.

Clients have requested hex signs as wedding or barn blessings, to encourage good harvests or for help with financial problems.

“There are misunderstandings and stereotypes, and I think it’s because of the name,” she said. “Blessings, talismans, prayers for protection — there are many positive words like that, that you can put on them. It’s just that they’re painted and not spoken.”

Starwalker doesn’t attach one specific religion to the hex signs — they’re definitely not related to the Amish or Mennonite religions, she said, which is another common misconception about the signs — but feels they should be imbued with whatever power or being the owner wants.

“I embrace what is, and there is universality in energy,” Starwalker said. “When I was taught to do the hex signs, my grandmother taught me to empower them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, amen. That was the tradition in which she learned it. I do them that way for those of that tradition, I also empower them in other ways for folks of other traditions, and it all seems to work.”

A freelance graphic artist and designer who works in print and on the Web for clients, Starwalker gains many of her clients through her own Web site, www.dutchhexsign.com. She deals with many of them through the Internet or postal mail — a vastly different manner from which her grandmother, who taught Starwalker about hex signs, dealt with her clients.

Michigan native Starwalker — which is not her real name, but a name given to her by a teacher in Washington State — first saw hex-sign making during summer visits to her grandmother, who lived in Iowa. But the practice wasn’t something that was openly discussed among the family, and Starwalker recalled being shooed out of the house whenever visitors would come to meet with her grandmother — who also donned a hat when meeting with people about hex signs.

One afternoon when Starwalker was a young teen, she found herself alone in the house with her grandmother. Starwalker started doodling with a compass and made a six-pointed flower design. Her grandmother asked her if she knew what it was. No, Starwalker told her grandmother, who that day began to teach Starwalker about the art of hex making.

“I didn’t get to spend too much time working with her because we were only there in the summertime and she died before I graduated high school, so there was a lot more that I could have learned.” Starwalker said. “But she taught me the basics, that there was power and energy there, and that it was something that you respected, that you didn’t just do it willy-nilly.”

Starwalker’s family eventually moved to California, where Starwalker attended UCLA for astronomy and math, but ended up as a graphic designer. Early on Starwalker was making hexes for fun, drawing them on things like her first daughter’s cradle or making them in batik, a textile medium.

Later, after moving to Washington state, where she lived without electricity, Starwalker felt a strong pull towards taking up hex signs. After a move to North Carolina, she started making the hex signs commercially and built her Web site.

Starwalker may be drawn to the mystic power of the hex signs, but she’s also a practical and smart businesswoman. Her site now appears on the Google search engine before that of Zook’s Family Crafts, a large hex-sign enterprise based in Paradise, Pa.

She also decided, after the company for which she was working in North Carolina closed, to move north. She chose Maine after a visit to the Bangor area and wound up on a side road in West Corinth.

Some clients come to Starwalker because they’re seeking something specific, such as the client who wanted a hex sign to protect her as she was going through a divorce and financial difficulties. Another wanted a sign for her business breeding working bloodhounds. Some people want them “just for pretty,” said Starwalker.

Starwalker works to create a design using signs or symbols meaningful to the client. There are different meanings to each symbol, from the pineapple, which is a symbol of welcome, to wheat, which has the connotation of abundance, to the oak leaf (strength) and star (protection).

Once Starwalker has the design, knows whether the hex will be hung outdoors or indoors, and the size of the hex (she’ll go up to four feet in diameter on pieces of plywood), she paints a coat of primer on the backing, maps out the design with a large compass, traces in the symbols (or creates new ones), and uses colored paint for the details.

The signs then get a spray of either a fabric protectant for the indoor hexen or an ultraviolet protectant for the outdoor hex signs. Then they’re shipped off with a certificate of authenticity, information about the signs, and instructions for sealing the prayer, as Starwalker calls it, for those who buy hexen for their energy as opposed to their decorative properties.

Occasionally, Starwalker said, she does joke with clients, reassuring them she won’t accidentally put a hex on them instead of their barn.

“A lot of times people hear the word hex and they think of a green, warty, pointy hat wearing crone,” Starwalker said. “Well, my hat is green but I’m not. And the warts are gone today.”

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