Melissa Drury has a basement studio at her home where she pours her “heart and soul” into her passion – colorful barn quilt squares that decorate the sides of buildings across rural Kentucky.
Drury, a painter based out of Lawrenceburg, has been making barn quilt blocks for about three years after being inspired by the paintings on barns near her home. Now her works can be seen on buildings across the country, all inspired by Kentucky’s original barn quilt trail movement.
Barn quilts are an artistic tradition for many in the commonwealth and can be as varied in color, pattern and symbolism as the families they represent. And the painted versions of traditional quilts, Kentucky Arts Council Executive Director Chris Cathers said, can bring communities together — they work together to create them, often in tandem with a cooperative extension office, and the finished products to proudly display a connection with culture and history.
The history behind the art
Before it spread to Kentucky, the passion behind the barn quilt trail was born out of Adams County, Ohio, by Donna Sue Groves, then a member of the Ohio Arts Council. Barn quilt trails are loosely organized collections of barn quilt locations in a specific area, often compiled by county officials.
Groves realized the project could bring tourists to her community, according to a website dedicated to the movement by author and enthusiast Suzi Parron. Plans for a “clothing line of quilts” were formed and later carried out by residents of Adams County, bordering the Ohio River east of Cincinnati.
Since then, counties across Kentucky have developed their own grassroots committees to spearhead barn quilt creation.
Kayla Speis, communications director at the Murray Convention and Visitors Center, said residents joined Ruth Dodd in 2010 when she began organizing the creation of barn quilts with the Calloway County Extension Homemakers Association to draw tourists to the small western Kentucky town. attract
The barn quilters set up shop in a garage to start working on their own version of the project, Speis said, and it didn’t take long for the community to buy in.
“Before we knew it, everybody wanted a piece of the pie, right? They wanted a shed blanket near their home or on their business or on their land,” she said.
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The committee that started barn quilting in Murray is no longer active, but the quilt trail map is still available on the city’s tourism website. Calloway County has one of the largest quilt trails in the region with over 60 recorded locations.
Cathers began working with the barn quilt trail movement when he was a project manager in tourism at Eastern Kentucky University in the early 2000s. Quilting is historically a social activity, he said, which plays into the role of barn quilt painting as a community activity.
Quilt Bees, when groups of homemakers got together and used the time to complete quilting projects, were popular in the 19th century and gave attendees a chance to “exchange news, recipes, home remedies, scraps of fabric and personal problems, and to discover new to learn skills and teach their daughters, all in a mutually supportive way,” according to “The Social History of Quilt Making in America.” And “Codeswitch,” a 2022 Speed Art Museum exhibit by artist Stanford Biggers, explored the debated idea that quilting may also have been used to help slaves follow Underground Railroad routes.
A rich tradition of quilting in Kentucky has lent itself to the modern public art form – and Cathers said that’s what makes barn quilts so valuable to local culture.
“You see how people in a community are motivated by this art project and this display of public art, and then connect it through culture or connect it through history in their communities or with families and then use the resources that are there in their community to to make it happen,” Cathers said. . . . It has its own special kind of magic.”
An artist’s personal touch
Barn quilts usually have bright colors, intricate patterns and symbolism. Drury said customers in Lawrenceburg often ask her to replicate traditional patterns from physical quilts.
Some themes in barn quilt squares reflect the surrounding environment, Drury said. In Kentucky, these can range from mountains in Eastern Kentucky to rolling hills in Central Kentucky to flatter landscapes and tobacco fields in Western Kentucky, and designs representing protection for their crops or even fertility for animals or families.
Colors follow suit, Drury said – they can be as simple as a reflection of the natural world or more complex, like the quilt square she painted for a family that used the grandchildren’s birthstones as the color palette.
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Pieces Drury makes are personal to the customer, she said. She works with them to find colors and patterns they like best.
Drury said she is often commissioned to paint barn quilts for weddings and holidays, so the client may want a pattern that represents something specific to them. One square Drury painted, for example, was called “Love’s Blossom,” which she said was intended to mimic the “greenness” a new family saw when they looked out onto their farm.
One of Drury’s favorite creations was based on the double wedding ring pattern, which consists of interlocking circles.
She put her own spin on the pattern after a customer requested it, she said, using themes from the art of old-time quilting inspired by her grandmother, such as little Dutch boys and girls, as well as suggestions from the customer and friends. For example, the moon symbolizes the lunar arc, a lunar rainbow that occurs at Cumberland Falls State Park.
Today, Drury’s double wedding ring painting hangs in the front of her client’s home.
“What an honor… to be able to do that,” Drury said.
Contact reporter Rae Johnson at [email protected] Follow them on Twitter at @RaeJ_33.