Decorating the countryside

Area barn quilts showcase
local art and history

New rural art form gaining popularity

By Lela Jane Bradshaw
Contributing Writer

(December 2007) – Years ago, many barns featured bright signs that aimed to entice drivers to roadside attractions and tourist destinations, such as Rock City. Jamae Bray Pyles of Bedford, Ky., noted that advertisements painted on barns “used to be quite something in the fifties and fell by the wayside.”

Sara Dryden

Photo provided

Sara Dryden makes quilts
to be mounted onto a barn.

Now a new art trend is attracting tourists to see the barns. Many area farms now boast barn quilts and drivers seek the colorful squares out to admire.
Barn quilting began in southern Ohio in 2001 when Donna Sue Groves created the first one in honor of her mother who loved barns and quilts. Barn quilts are large plywood squares painted in colorful patterns similar to those seen on bed quilts.
Typically, barn quilts measure eight feet tall. As their popularity has grown, smaller sized quilts have been crafted to fit utility sheds and porches. The larger barn quilts require the use of a lift in order to mount them in place.
In many communities, such as in Trimble County, Ky., electric companies assist in hanging the quilts by providing equipment and employees to set the quilt in place. Smaller sized quilts can be mounted by individuals by hanging the squares from cables or mounting them on posts.
Over the past year the art form has appeared on several barns in northern Kentucky and southern Indiana. Barn quilts tend to enter a community in one of two ways.
In Madison, word of mouth has spread about the beautiful barn decorations. Residents see a barn quilt and decide to add one to their own property. In other areas, clubs and community organizations encourage the creation of barn quilts as public art. Madison barn quilt artist Sara Dryden says that during the past 14 months the Stamping Ground Homemaker’s Club in Kentucky created more than 100 quilts. The Trimble County Extension Council put up its first two this past summer and hopes to add two more soon. In areas with an active quilting community, barn quilts find an eager welcome.

Barn Next to Bray Orchards

Photo by Don Ward

This barn quilt hangs at Bray
Orchards along U.S. Hwy. 42
just south of Bedford, Ky.

Dryden explains that “a lot of communities have chosen more rural type patterns to represent their heritage.” The Trimble County barn quilts feature designs popular during the era of the Underground Railroad and recognize the community’s involvement in the freedom movement. Project organizers hope that the quilts will encourage local citizens to learn more about area history and take pride in the community’s heritage.
Another project goal is to attract tourists interested in seeing the outdoor art. Communities in Iowa and Eastern Kentucky encourage driving tours showcasing the barn decorations. Many in Northern Kentucky and Southern Indiana hope to see similar programs in their areas soon.
Karen Wilson, a clerk at The Paint Depot in the Clifty Plaza in Madison, notes that in comparison to large murals, barn quilts are an “easier medium that people can do themselves.” The Paint Depot offers many of the materials needed to go about creating the quilts, and has directions for those who wish to paint their own.
The store also distributes artist contact information for those who would prefer to work with a local painter. Many barn quilt painters make use of patterns already familiar to those who love traditional quilts, such as Jacob’s Ladder and Double Wedding Ring. Dryden suggests that those interested in adding a barn quilt to their property take the time to find a pattern that fits in with their home and family.
Some chose a design that reflects a particular interest, such as a teacher who selected a schoolhouse pattern. Others select a layout that echoes a quilt sewn by an ancestor or family member. For those new to quilting, pouring over the patterns and learning the history behind the names is part of the fun.
Dryden along with her husband, John, and son, Jack, went through hundreds of patterns over the past winter before selecting a stars and stripes based pattern. The next step was cutting plywood into a square and sketching out the pattern. Then the pattern was painted using exterior paint to stand up to the elements. The square that hangs outside the family barn was the first of 11 that Dryden has completed so far.
Part of the pleasure of hanging a barn quilt comes in knowing that it gives enjoyment to others. Pyles is one of the owners of Bray Orchards, where visitors can see a Bear Claw barn quilt painted in red, yellow and green. Pyles said the Trimble County Extension Council approached her about providing the location for one of the quilts as her barn can easily be seen by those driving on U.S. Hwy. 42. She notes that the barn quilt has been a good addition to the orchard as many passersby stop in to ask for more information about it. Dryden, whose son Jack watches for barn quilts during family drives, says, “the more there are out there the prettier the countryside.”

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