What started as one small painting on a barn in Adams County has multiplied into an international art project, all started by one woman to honor her mother and her Appalachian heritage.
The woman behind the National Quilt Barn Trail, which links 44 states and two provinces in Canada, has made only one quilt square in her 64 years — a Tree of Life pattern that is more suitable as a wall hanging than a blanket.
“Mother says [quilting] traditionally skips a generation,” says Donna Sue, referring to Nina Maxine Groves, the woman who inspired her to create the first quilt barn in Adams County. “But I love fabric, I love the patterns and I’m fascinated with the stories of those who do quilt, and so I just consider myself a cheerleader.”
Donna Sue is hardly on the sidelines, though. Her original idea for a quilt barn nearly 23 years ago rapidly spread to small towns across the nation, patching neighbors together and boosting tourism in rural areas.
The idea formed after she and her mother purchased a 28-acre farm in Adams County. A run-down, ugly tobacco barn sat on the property, prompting her to tell Nina Maxine — a master quilter — that she’d spruce it up with color by painting a quilt square on it to honor her mother’s hobby. But the pieces of the plan didn’t come together until residents offered to help nearly 10 years later. Combining quilts and barns may seem like an unlikely marriage, but both were an important part of Donna Sue’s childhood. During long car rides between her home in Kanawha County, West Virginia, and her grandparents’ home in Rhone County, West Virginia, Nina Maxine made up a game to keep Donna Sue and her brother Michael occupied. With no electronics for distraction and few out-of-state license plates to count, the children scored points for spotting certain types of barns — like a dairy barn — or for reading advertisements painted on the worn wooden boards.
“It was either that or Dramamine,” says Donna Sue, laughing. During these rides, her mother usually patched quilt squares together. The barn spotting became a family event when Donna Sue’s father started photographing the barns or discussing their history and architecture. Later, when the family moved to Xenia after Donna Sue’s father got a job with the Greene County Health Department, the barns she saw in Ohio reminded her of her Appalachian roots.
All of Adams County knew of Donna Sue’s plan to paint a quilt square for her mother, and it became a running joke. Finally, though, in 1999, Pete Whan of The Nature Conservancy, who was working at the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, offered to help find support for the project. At that point, Donna Sue said, “Why don’t we paint more than one and create a driving trail for tourists?” The idea came naturally to Donna Sue, who spent nearly 20 years volunteering and working with nonprofits and artist organizations throughout the state, first with the Ohio Community Development Corporation’s VISTA project (Volunteers in Service to America), where she incorporated art into parenting classes, and then as the Southern Ohio field representative for the Ohio Arts Counsel. And she knew that the region was passionate about farming and crafts, creating the perfect platform for a community project.
“These are just folks at the ground level who come together to create a project for the betterment of their community that happens to be fun,” she says. “And it’s not rocket science; it doesn’t take a skilled person to do it. Children can paint them, seniors can paint them. The men love it because it tends to incorporate wood and framing … or how to better hang it on the barn.”
In January of 2000, residents got together to plan the trail and in 2001, the first quilt barn — an Ohio Star — was unveiled during the Lewis Mountain Olde Thyme Herb Fair. And in 2003, Nina Maxine finally got her quilt square. Donna Sue commissioned Geoff Schenkel, an artist in Marietta, to paint a Snail’s Trail pattern for their tobacco barn.
Eleven years and about 3,000 quilt squares later, Donna Sue is convinced that this is the largest public art project since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA murals. The quilts have spread from rural barns to inner-city buildings.
“It showcases to the rest of the world that comes to visit us how beautiful and how great it is in rural America,” she says.
Still, Donna Sue is surprised at how quickly the project took off, and she’s still getting used to the publicity.
“My job is to stay in the background always … I’m the hand-holder. I’m the one asking questions. I’m not the one that’s supposed to be celebrated,” she says.
It seems, though, that Donna Sue provides the frame and the patchwork for this international sampler, keeping people together and assisting them through the process. She’s made friends across the country, people who have created their own quilt squares, often in memory of loved ones.
“I learned people’s children’s names and their favorite color and the fact that they lost their mother or husband,” she says. “Over and over again, I heard that the project changed their life. It gave them reason to live. It gave them reason to get up out of bed.”
But to Donna Sue, the people she’s met in the process have lifted her up “like angels” through periods of grief and mourning, first after the loss of her job with the Ohio Arts Council in June of 2008 and then following her breast cancer diagnosis a month later.
“The biggest thing was their positive energy and their prayers that they sent me, and [it] gave me hope,” she says. “Hearing how this project changed lives gave me something to focus on and hold on to in my darkest of days.”
And although Donna Sue has been breast cancer free for nearly five years, last year she found out that the disease has spread to her kidneys and bladder. To say it’s been tough is an understatement. She brushes away tears when she speaks of her mother — alive and well at 84 — whom Donna Sue, currently undergoing exhausting treatments, is unable to help. Still, she retains her optimism.
“I’m going to live as hard and as long as I can and be upbeat and hopeful and positive because I can’t change the facts,” she says.
The quilt barns project helped Donna Sue put down roots in Ohio, even though she’s lived in the state for most of her adult life. In many ways, though, home is still rural West Virginia and, initially, it’s where she wanted to return after her father’s death and her mother’s retirement. But fewer family members remain in the area, and there was little economic opportunity, so going back to West Virginia seemed impractical. Nina Maxine, who enjoyed camping and fishing at Brush Creek State Forest in Adams County, suggested they move to that rural area of southern Ohio.
“It’s not so different here,” says Donna Sue. “I love it here. I can’t turn back the clock. I have to think about the rest of my journey and it’s totally impractical [to move back to West Virginia] but my heart is always over there,” she says. “But I’ve had a good life here.”
Last year, Donna Sue and other quilt square organizers around the country celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Adams County Quilt Barn Trail at the Red Barn Convention Center in Winchester. It’s a testament to her involvement and kind spirit that about 250 people from 15 states showed up to celebrate.
Donna Sue has received multiple awards and invitations since starting the quilt trail movement, most recently the 2010 Governor’s Award for the Arts. She was also invited to the prestigious Houston International Quilt Festival in 2009, where she was recognized for inspiring the first quilt barn trail in Texas.
“I’ve had a damn good life and I’ve had a lot of fun,” she says. “No one has reaped more riches of friendships and people. I’m the richest woman in the world; I am the most blessed. ... This project has brought so much joy and hope and love from people I would have never met.”
To learn more about the history, location and stories behind national and international quilt barns, pick up a copy of Suzi Parron’s new book, Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement (Ohio University Press and Swallow Press, 2012). Parron, a high school English teacher in Atlanta, sought the story behind the movement after encountering her first quilt barn — a Flying Geese square — on a trip through Cadiz, Kentucky. Through her research, she encountered Donna Sue and, together, they compiled the book. To order a copy, visit ohioswallow.com.