Outdoor Art Series: Southern Wisconsin Barn Quilts

Jul 19, 2013

Nancy Nienhuis was born in a farmhouse in rural Janesville, Wis. She's worked the land her whole life and plans to keep it in the family. She's proud of her family's agricultural legacy and wants others to take notice.

Facing the road on one of her red barns is a brightly colored quilt square painted on wood. It's a pattern called the "Farmer's Daughter" and it has a special meaning for Nienhuis since she is the daughter of a farmer herself.

Green mixes with red and white, and blue and yellow to form the overall square. The colors symbolize the universities where Nancy's children attended -- Wisconsin and Michigan. The green is for the family's ties to agriculture.

"The first couple of summers, there may have been 25 or 30 people who stopped. They would go and home and decide on a quilt. They came from all over the state." - Nancy Nienhuis

Barn quilts are a relatively new phenomenon. Since 2001, they have starting growing in popularity around the U.S. Nienhuis had the first one in Rock County. Her neighbor has one too.

The quilt pattern is painted on a wooden square, which is then attached to the barn. They come in several sizes. Eight feet by eight feet is the most common for visibility.

Jeanette Beard painted many of the barn quilts in Rock County. She's a longtime school teacher who found a passion for art later in life. She says there are now hundreds of barn quilts throughout the area, which  make it a great weekend destination:

"Local paint, local wood. That was our intent, to try to give local people business in kind of a round circle; bring in people to see this and stop at our businesses," Beard said.

People are taking notice. On a road trip several year ago, Suzi Parron saw several barn quilts dotting the rural landscape.  When she looked up the meaning of barn quilts online, she came up empty. That's when she decided to write her own book.  It's called "Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement." She wrote it with Donna Sue Groves, the pioneer of American barn quilts.  Parron has now seen hundreds of barn quilts across the country.

"They are proud of their farm, they are proud of their barn, they are proud of what they have done there and the fact they have stayed on the land, which for smaller farms is harder and harder to do." -Author Suzi Parron

Parron says it's also a treat for travelers:

"As people travel the quilt trail, they become amateur art critics to a certain extent, Parron said. "They look at the entire scene, it might be cows in the foreground, or a silo that sets it off. It's kind of like going to a museum and really looking at each thing and seeing whether it's pleasing to you and thinking about the person who may have created it."

Back at the Nienhuis farm, Maddie and Liza Hodge take a quick break from picking green beans in their grandmother's garden. They like what the barn quilt says about their family:

"We are kind of like trendsetters," Maddie said. "It's nice to be the first ones with a barn quilt," Liza said.

Even though each square has its own unique story, the barn quilts of Rock County are all part of a growing movement built on a common thread.