Appreciating Rural Beauty

By Connie Pearson

Photography courtesy of Connie Pearson, Dale Robinson, Regina Breland

    American Barn Quilt Trails combine art, architecture, agriculture, and history, and they provide a perfect reason to explore rural roads.

    Alabama and Mississippi have surged into the fastest growing public art movement in the U.S., and agritourism is reaping the benefits. The number of barn quilt squares dotting the countryside is growing exponentially with no signs of slowing down.

    By getting off the interstates and roaming the rural backroads, you will likely be rewarded when a sudden burst of color and pattern attached to a barn catches your eye. It will feel as if you’ve found the golden egg in a giant, adult-sized Easter egg hunt. When you pull over to snap a photo, the quiet, peaceful setting will remind you of simpler times. Maybe the faces of your grandparents will come to mind. The barns are in friendly places, the kind where passersby will stop to inquire if you need help or directions. The trails provide motivation for exploring nature, appreciating rural beauty and searching for hidden treasures. 

    From its emergence in 2001, the American Barn Quilt Trail Movement has grown rapidly since the first painted quilt square was attached to a barn in Ohio. Today, all but a handful of U.S. states have barn quilt trails, and the movement has spread to at least three provinces in Canada. In addition to promoting agritourism, barn quilt trails encourage preservation of historic barns, honors the hard work of farmers and draws attention to quilts as a significant contribution to American art history.

    Donna Sue Groves, the acknowledged founder of the movement, painted an “Ohio Star” quilt square in 1989, and displayed it on the family farm in Adams County, Ohio. She and her mother shared both the farm and a love for quilting, so this barn quilt was intended as a tribute to her mother. While Groves pursued her career of promoting community development through the arts, it occurred to her that painting squares on several barns and creating a driving tour could attract visitors and bring in some tourism dollars. The Ohio project was launched in 2001. The idea caught on immediately. Seven thousand trails currently crisscross the country.

    Alabama and Mississippi have strong participation in the movement, led by passionate supporters and organizers. Regina Painter in Alabama and Regina Breland in Mississippi emerged as the leaders in those states. Breland heads up the Chickasa-Leaf Barn Quilt Trail Association, one of seven trails scattered throughout Mississippi. The Chickasa-Leaf trail started in March 2014, when its first quilt square was hung in Greene County, Mississippi.

    In Alabama, all 54 participating barns are listed under one main trail – the Alabama Barn Quilt Trail – which began in December 2015 in Lauderdale County. A new one, however, is emerging on the Gulf Coast.

    Barn owners give varying reasons for putting up squares. “My quilt block was put up to start the trail,” explains Mississippi’s Breland. “Most people put them up to join the trail or to add decorative folk art to their barns or outbuildings.”

    Dale Robinson, an active member of the Alabama trail says, “Being part of the community was what motivated me to get involved with the trail. Although I don’t have a barn myself, painting the squares is a good way to give something back to the community that has been so good to me and my family. It’s something my wife and I can enjoy doing together.

    “Some barn owners do it to honor an ancestor who maybe created a quilt or was a farmer or was significant to them in some way. Some just want to add some color to dress up their barn,” adds Robinson.

    The requirements for submitting a barn, outbuilding, or business for inclusion on a trail and the guidelines for creating painted squares seem to be consistent from state-to-state. Squares must be at least 4-feet-by-4-feet but also can be 8-feet-by-8-feet. Barns must be neatly maintained, be in locations with unobstructed viewing for the public, and have a safe place for vehicles to pull over. Quilt blocks should be based on a traditional pattern or a family heirloom quilt with no political advertisements or family initials. Trail committees approve the patterns, but the barn owners are free to choose the colors. Trail organizers work to ensure that each square is unique without a repetition of patterns.

    In the beginning, three-quarter-inch plywood was used as the painting canvas, but owners found that those frames were cumbersome, difficult to attach, and faded quickly.  Now, Medium Density Overlay (MDO) plywood, the same material used for street signs, is the popular choice. It is weather-resistant, durable, more lightweight and has a smooth painting surface.

    A primer coat covers the entire surface first, then the intricate designs are carefully drawn using an overhead projector, software programs or grid paper. Layers of high-quality exterior paint are meticulously applied to provide the eye-popping colors.

    Both barn owners and quilt block painters are encouraged to develop designs with personal meaning and significance. A pattern could be similar to a quilt made by a beloved relative. Some trail websites feature photos of barn owners holding an original family quilt from which their quilt square was fashioned.

Some use patterns or symbols that represent a livelihood or special hobby. Beekeepers often choose a honeybee pattern, for example. Peach growers may create an abstract peach tree. Eagles often convey patriotism, along with red, white and blue colors, which are very popular. Some choose to incorporate their state’s bird or flower, while others feature a cow, a horse or a flag. Most, though, are merely abstract shapes interwoven into an attractive square painted with striking color palettes.

    The first grant for the trail in Alabama came from the Northwest Alabama Resource Conservation and Development Council. Since then, contributions have come from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, ALFA Insurance and Alabama Farmers Federation. Mississippi’s Chickasa-Leaf Barn Quilt Trail received a Bicentennial Grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council, plus they have individual donors and sponsors. Both states conduct classes teaching individuals to paint their own barn quilt blocks. The money from those classes is allocated for promotion and funding for more quilt blocks.

    Robinson estimates that the materials for a large finished barn quilt block cost $125 to $150, with the smaller blocks being slightly less.

    Alabama’s Barn Quilt Trail is listed in Alabama’s Bicentennial Events for 2019. In addition to the 54 blocks already listed, Robinson says, “We have three more blocks that are finished and just need to be installed, and one more that is almost done. We have at least 20 more waiting to be painted, and  they are from all over the state.”

    Both Painter and Breland expect the movement to expand, and they hope all the counties in their states will soon have participants.

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