In February of last year when we purchased the Glen Ellyn property we were determined, from the outset, to honor the heritage of this site while adapting the buildings and land to productive use as our quilt shop and design studio. Since the abiding culture of quilting has always drawn from centuries past in forming contemporary expression, we hope the reincarnation of the Red House under our stewardship will do the same. As part of this homage to the past, and with an obvious nod to the internal function of the building, we decided early on to incorporate into our re-imagining that piece of building art commonly known as a “barn quilt”.
As anyone who has driven through rural areas in the northeast, midwest and points in between knows, a barn quilt is a painted depiction of motif evocative of an individual quilt block–the basic unit of construction of most traditional quilts. As we all know, there are numerous absolutely classic block patterns, among which are the well-known double star, pinwheel, log cabin, and famously, in our case, the dutchman’s puzzle.
The notion of barn quilts, most agree, began in 2001 when a woman named Donna Sue Groves realized a years-old desire to honor her mother with installation of the first “barn quilt”. The thought was that this would be a way of celebrating quilting while at the same time establishing a tradition that would eventually take hold and give rise to “barn quilt trails” throughout certain regions of the United States, where agrarian history is particularly ingrained. She recounts the evolution of this “barn quilt” phenomenon, in part this way:
I finally had my own barn. Ours was a tobacco barn. One day while we were admiring it, I mentioned to my mother that I thought the barn was plain and needed something to brighten it up. I said it needed color; I halfheartedly said a big quilt square would look nice and promised her that I’d paint one for her someday. That “1989 “someday” promise took fourteen years to come to fruition.
* * *
On my numerous [Ohio Arts Council] road trips, I naturally watched for barns just as I did as a child. It was during those road trips that an idea started to formulate that led to my “aha” moment. Most rural communities did not have large, blank store walls or a floodwall for murals, but they did have barns. To me the barn walls looked like empty palettes waiting to be decorated. Why not make use of those barn walls specifically for a community project decorating them with quilt squares?
* * *
As the years passed my friends asked if I still planned to paint my mother’s quilt square . . . I suggested that if we were going to paint one quilt square, why not paint several and invite tourists to travel a trail using quilt squares?
* * *
For the past fifteen years I’ve found purpose and delight working with communities as they planned, developed and implemented quilt trails across the United States . . . Daily, I am reminded that I am part of a greater community that is bound together by a magical quilting thread . . . I’ve learned that we are a kinder, gentler nation, person-by-person and neighbor-by-neighbor, than the evening news would have us believe. I’ve heard childhood stories of growing up in rural America—how a quilt or barn played a role in so many lives. I’ve been told how working with others to create a [barn quilt] trail transformed these lives and gave them new purpose—even giving some a will to live. I lived for those stories; stories were and continue to be my lifeline to the outside world!
Parron, Suzi. Following the Barn Quilt Trail. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2016 (from the foreword by Donna Sue Groves).
Since that time the custom of hand-painting such barn quilts—especially in the context of “barn quilt trails”, or specific routes in which numerous quilts can be experienced in sequence–has taken hold to the extent that there are now examples of this art in each of the 48 contiguous states and Canada.
See also, Parron, Suzi. Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail. americanquilttrail.blogspot.com (retrieved August 21, 2016).
* * *
The difference between a real quilt block and a barn quilt, of course, is one of scale, material and application. The barn quilt isn’t intended to be a literal block, but evocative of one. It’s an important distinction, but one that failed to impact the hearts and minds of the Village reviewers or affect their collective penchant for very literal code interpretation when we sought initial design approval. Then, as now, our humble example of this folk art form was intractably deemed a commercial “sign”, making it necessary for us to apply (and argue) for a code variance before we could incorporate this iconic element into the building. Sigh. So it goes.
The good news, of course, is that we did get the variance, and our block will be gracing the west elevation of the house, for many years to come.
So, we hope that as you drive west on Pennsylvania Avenue in Glen Ellyn to visit, the first thing you’ll see is our Dutchman’s Puzzle, and maybe smile as you appreciate the history both it, and the façade it adorns, embody.