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Barn quilt trail creator reflects on project’s growth

Barn quilt trail creator reflects on project’s growth

When Vyvyan Rundgren, of Stanardsville, had the idea to begin a barn quilt trail through Greene County, she never imagined the project would grow to become one of the largest tourist attractions in the country. With 137 currently on display as part of the trail and four more to be added in this month’s brochure update, the Blue Ridge Barn Quilt Trail is the largest in the state of Virginia by nearly 100.

If you’ve never heard of a barn quilt, you may be thinking of fabric and stitches—but barn quilts are actually weatherproof painted boards made to look like quilts and hung outdoors on barns, homes, fences and on businesses.

While this style of painting has been around for many years, the recent trend began in Adams County, Ohio, 20 years ago. In 2001, Donna Sue Groves decided to honor her quilter mother, Maxine, by painting a quilt block on her tobacco barn. Soon after, friends and neighbors wanted barn quilts of their own, and Groves expanded the project to create a “sampler” of 20 designs for those within the area. Many were created to mimic the patterns of family (fabric) quilts that had been passed down through generations. Groves later traveled to nearby counties and then to Iowa and Kentucky to share her idea—the Bluegrass State is now home to about 800 painted quilts.

With humble beginnings in Ohio, barn quilt trails have since sprouted up in 48 states (as well as Canada) and have become tourist destinations—a way to see the countryside while seeking out landmarks of barn quilts on a map. The trails are often created by quilt guilds, civic groups, local arts councils, school groups and other organizations and tend to be a countywide effort. Visit barnquiltinfo.com to view a U.S. map with links to quilt trails in each state. According to this site, five counties in Virginia have registered quilt trails.

In 2011, Highland County became the first in Virginia to have its very own barn quilt trail. With names like “Five Reds,” “Colaw Apple” or “Jacob’s Ladder,” each barn quilt tells a story about the owner’s family or business. Lee County started a trail in 2013 with 22 quilts, in conjunction with the Appalachian Quilt Trail of Tennessee. With paintings lining the hall in front of the Lee County Arts Council office, the designs depict the community’s history and ties to farming and the railroad. Halifax County also has approximately 25 quilts on its trail and Martinsville has less than 10.

“The first time I ever heard of a barn quilt was when, in 2016, we went across country and my husband I happened to touch through the bottom part of Ohio,” Rundgren said. “We stopped at a visitors center and there was a brochure there about barn quilts, so I picked it up just kind of to look at it. When you opened it up, it opened again and again—it was maybe four feet by three; it was huge. They had over 300 barn quilts in their county.”

Intrigued, Rundgren convinced her traveling companions to pull off the highway for any quilts that were nearby, and wound up chatting with the owner of a yarn shop who had a barn quilt depicting yarn and fabric—kind of a quilt (textile) within a quilt (painting).

“When I got home, Ivar said, ‘Why don’t you make a barn quilt for our barn?’ and so I did,” Rundgren said. “I did a little research and figured out how to do it. It was a long process because I had no idea what I was doing. We put it on the barn, and then I went to talk to [tourism director] Alan Yost to see if it was possible, if the Art Guild did something, could they do the brochure.”

After much discussion about the number of available barns for paintings and the financing for the project, Yost suggested that the barn quilts could be created as donations from artists to the county, allowing any proceeds to benefit the Art Guild. The brochure design he offered to take care of free of charge to help get the project up off the ground.

“Any time a barn quilt is made, if it stays in the county, it’s a donation,” Rundgren said. “We give each person or business a list of what it would cost (to create) and they have lots of designs that you can choose from.” In addition to designs on the website, patrons have the option to create a custom design with the artist or to make their own painting at one of Rundgren’s barn quilt workshops.

“We had to really do some advertising to get people to join the workshops (at first), and then all of a sudden it just started getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “We have been giving workshops every month for the last two years in my home church, which is in Madison.”

Although Rundgren has not hosted any regular barn quilt workshops since April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she hopes to start them up again this spring and has worked on a few this past year as well as hosting one small workshop in her own barn with five attendees.

“A lot of people who have lived here before have come back to visit their families and would schedule a visit back … so that they could take the workshop,” Rundgren said. “We’ve had them from Nelson County and down in Colonial Beach and Virginia Beach … some of these people that have taken the barn quilt workshop live in Florida or just anywhere. I have gone to quilt meetings—actual fabric quilts—and showed the PowerPoint that I have and explained to them what’s going on and so a lot of people who actually make quilts at home will come and take a barn quilt workshop and make their own.”

The Blue Ridge Barn Quilt Trail was launched officially in 2017, and has grown each year as more businesses and homeowners add quilts of all shapes and sizes.

“The ones on South River Road were the first ones, besides the one my barn, to be put up because I know most of the people on South River so I went to them first,” she said. “Some of them had a big barn so we did an eight by eight; some of them were smaller. A four by eight piece of plywood is as wide as you can get a square out of it, so we cut that in half and do it in sections.”

The largest barn quilt on display in Greene is on Snead’s Auto Shop on Main Street in Stanardsville. The nine-by-nine-foot painting, which resembles a traditional patchwork quilt with repeating patterns of geometric shapes done in various color schemes across nine separate boards, was taken down recently due to repainting of the business exterior, but is expected to be put back up soon. The large project was completed by a team of three artists.

“We have one gal that took the barn quilt class and she did the design in three colors—maroon, blue and khaki,” Rundgren recalled. “When she left, one girl didn’t show up and so she said, ‘Is it possible to buy that other board? Because I’d like to make another one.’ So she bought it and took it home, and then she brought it back for me to seal and bought another one … I think she has seven or eight on her property, on her fence line. All the designs are different, but they’re all in the same three colors, so it’s kind of an interesting display. She says she’s run out of fence now, so I guess she is finished.”

You don’t have to have a barn to have a barn quilt, according to Rundgren.

“They’re in gardens, they’re in front yards, they’re on fences, hanging from individual mailboxes … a lot of people pick out their own designs. Some just say give me an Americana one and they’ve been given as gifts. It really has been fun,” she said.

The LOVE sign in front of the Greene County Technical Education Center is a collaboration of many smaller barn quilts, and each school also now has its own barn quilt, created through an art class competition amongst students from each school.

“The LOVE sign has 100 barn quilts on it, all different sizes and all different shapes,” Rundgren said. “Once we put them up and there was a blank space, we figured out what size to put in there, and the school district was wonderful about letting us put it there; they were very appreciative. We keep the weeds out and we spray around the edge so the grass doesn’t grow in there. And then of course the art teachers in all five schools had a contest … so the school has been very, very good to us.”

Made from exterior-grade plywood, each board is filled and sealed along the edges and then covered in two coats of primer. The backside then gets two coats of a solid color (usually green or brown) and then four coats of a spar varnish. The front side gets two coats of primer and then two coats of white or the desired background color of the artist. The Art Guild pays for all of the paint and plywood, which is why donations are encouraged to help cover the cost of materials.

“Spar varnish is the same thing that they put on boats,” Rundgren said. “So it’s going to protect it. There’s another finish that’s used on wood all the time—polyurethane—it will eventually turn the white areas yellow, and the spar varnish does not. The two that have been up since 2017 look just fine and I haven’t put anything else on it. I don’t even wash it—God takes care of that.”

Of the 137 barn quilts on the trail, 101 of them were painted by members of the Art Guild.

“I’ve had people come up to my house and pull in the yard,” she said. “The brochure indicates if you can see it from the road. We’ve donated one to the historical society for an auction … and we’ve donated a barn quilt to a lot of places like the Greene Care Clinic and we’re (usually) at the farmers market. The most unusual one that we’ve done is on Route 230 about a half a mile from Main Street and it’s a honeycomb with bees on it.”

To view the most recent barn quilt trail brochure, visit exploregreene.com/explore/barn-quilt-trail or pick one up from the county visitors center or library. The photos of every quilt were taken by local photographer Pat Temples, and the majority of the paintings were done by Rundgren or Art Guild President Cory Ryan.

Neighboring Madison County has recently launched its own barn quilt trail thanks to Rundgren’s workshops, which are usually held at her church in the Hebron Valley. With just less than 40 quilts, the project is run by Nan Coppage and photos are organized by her daughter. Rundgren is planning a special workshop for a business in Orange to help guide them toward having enough barn quilts to merit another new trail.

If you’re interested in commissioning or painting your own barn quilt, reach out to vyvyanr@gmail.com or call (540) 421-2742.

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