The history of the Barn Quilt or Barn Paintings in Appalachia can be traced back over 220 hundred years. If we consider Hex Sign painting, Under Ground Rail Road Quilts and Barn Quilts all as part of the larger history of using large symbolistic language in folk art.
So if this is true then I have unknowingly blessed communities with my Barn Quilt Murals for years. Meaning, that I am a modern folk artist who uses my Barn Quilt or Quilt Block murals to educated, bless, and protect families, animals and whole cities.
Last year I was lucky enough to attend a lecture in Elkins, W.V. about Applachin Folklore in West Virginia. The author of the book “Signs, Cures &Witchery” Gerald C. Milnes included in his book information about the creation of Hex Signs and Barn Paintings as part of the spiritual folk language of the Germanic settlers of our mountain region. It was suggested that Barn Paintings were used as symbols that were thought to bless or protect the barn or farm from witches. Witches were not the mythic creatures of our modern-day imagination but working spiritual powers that could devastate a farm or the community. Witch curses were thought to cause wide ranging problems from fires to cows that would not produce milk. So in this way, Hex Signs, Barn Quilts, or just large barn paintings were used to ward off evil and protect a family’s source of income.
Milnes states in his book,”Some of the first recorded Hex Signs motifs in West Virginia were the double eagle, star, moon, lilies, compass, hearts, and the tree of life”. With women working with their hands inside the home many of the patterns also were incorporated into utilitarian objects they used every day. Pottery, quilts, wall hangings were also covered with these images of blessings and protection. It is not surprising to think that if you wanted to protect and bless your children a mother would create quilts with these motifs.
As I researched more about the link between the motifs sewn into Southern and Appalachian quilts, the more I understood about the Quaker, Dunkard and the Pennsylvania Dutch communities in and North of West Virginia. With large bodies of evidence, It is amazing to see that the symbolic motifs of ( Hex Signs and folk art) quilts were again used as a device for communication and blessings during the Civil War ( 1861 -1865). If a West Virginia family was sympathetic with the Union and freedom from slavery they could use quilts hung on porches, fences, and clotheslines as ways to lead escaping slaves across borders to freedom. Many Quaker and Dunkard families made Under Ground Rail Road Quilts helping direct slaves to homes or locations that were safe for them during their escape to the North. Often the individual blocks on the quilt would tell a story. Often a star pattern would let an escaping slave know to keep traveling North, a boat or train track next on the quilt would be read to mean that a water crossing or train crossing was coming up next on the route. A house or cabin image could mean a safe place to stop. The number of symbolic patterns was used widely and I have included some that we still see today.
The use of Barn Hex signs then fell out of favor in my region. The formalizing of the local Christian Church system slowly changed worship in the rural mountains. As more people depended on the formal church for their spiritual beliefs and blessings. You see less and less folk art in homes and barns. Although the quilt remained a warm and practical way to decorate and reuse materials. The patterns that were used were often the same or like those from the first homesteaders. These important images passed from generation to generation.
From those pattens came some of the first Barn Quilt Murals. The family that sparked the reintrodution of painting quilt blocks on barns is from Ohio.
“The first official quilt trail was begun in 2001 in Adams County, Ohio. Donna Sue Groves wanted to honor her mother, Maxine, a noted quilter, with a painted quilt square on the family’s barn in Manchester, Ohio”. found on Wikipedia
From their first Barn Quilt trail, regional trails have sprung up all over the eastern United States. Some are based on traditional patterns and others have included more contemporary images and designs.
I am now in the process of painting my 17th Quilt Block Mural. The reason I do not call them Barn Quilts is they are rarely located on a barn. My Quilt Block Murals hang in more urban areas, not farms. Most have come from the traditional images on Appalanchin quilts often the same as the Underground Rail Road Quilts. They are also often paid for as part of downtown revitalization and are seen as a reintroduction of our culture back into the modern cityscape in the towns of West Virginia. In this way, my Quilt Block Murals are reintroducing the folk art back into a culture that had generally forgotten about the traditions of Hex Signs, the Under Ground Rail Road Quilts and barn painting in general.
Barn Quilt and Quilt Block Murals in urban locations and the creation of the trails around them, have unknowingly brought back exactly the things that Hex Signs were once used for over 200 years ago. The tourist dollars that are spent traveling the trails, the community that has been built around them with families creating them, and the beauty of art back in the community are all blessings to the rural towns that have them. I like to think that my creations are a larger blessing to my community where they hang.
So I continue to paint them. Today I am working on one for my very own home after years of painting them for others. It is a much more contemporary pattern then my normal murals. It is my way of blessing my family and my home. I hope that I can continue to be able to be a Hex Sign Painter/ Barn Quilt Muralist/ Quilt Block painter for many more years to come. As I paint the images I hope that they will continue bring beauty, hope, joy and blessings those who see them.
If you are interested I have attached a link to a helpful website that I used when I was first starting out making the Barn Quilt murals. I have also included a list of alternative supplies that I am now using and a tip on pattern making. So please enjoy making your own Barn Quilts or Quilt Block Murals.
This is an excellent site for the process of making and painting your own murals.
The Helderberg Quilt Barn Trail website
The only addition I would like to make to these instructions is you do not have to use wood for the Barn Quilts unless you want to. I have now begun to use a PVC siding product for my murals. The main reason being the weight of the sign grade MDO plywood. MDO plywood is dense particleboard made with glue and is very heavy at the 8’x 8′ size around 250 pounds, even the smaller 4’X4′ is around 125 lbs. This makes painting and moving the boards very difficult. So I tried and have found success with a thin 1/4 inch PVC siding product and a plastic bonding primer framed with PVC trim. PVC can be much more expensive if you are unable to find the MDO Plywood. In my case almost twice the cost, but it was so much nicer being able to move the murals by myself and so much easier to install. If you chose to use PVC you must use a bonding primer. It will adhere to the plastic and allow a good bond to the paint. The cost is the same as a regular primer.
Also when doing a design for your murals think about location as part of the planning. Size Matters! If you have a mural that hangs 15 feet from the ground don’t plan much detail in the mural. The details of small patterns get lost and people driving by will have no idea what the image is supposed to be. In reverse it is possible to get great detail in smaller indoor patterns. My current project is in my home on a half door measuring only 28×28 inches. The pattern I have chosen is a complex over and under optical illusion of stripes. I looks good placed where it is viewed close up.
Here is the design guide image and the final image panted on the door to my art studio in Buckhannon, WV. As I paint the pattern changed a few things. As you can see I used the traditional colors of West Virginia with the Navy Blue and Gold with a little contrast with white and blue gray. It is a reflection of the complexity of our state and our people.
Just as informal project cost for making a small panel similar to this one. The painting is 28X28the panel is 36×42.
1 half a sheet of 1/2 plywood $16.00 dollars
2 1x2x8 foot boards for front and back trim these were not furring strips but milled boards $ 8.00 dollars
a box of wood screws 2 1/4 inches $ 8.00
1 gallon white interior latex paint used as primer and paint (2) Coats $18.00 dollars
3 quarts interior latex paint, 1 navy, 1bright yellow 1 blue gray 3×23 $69.00
( I mixed the navy with white to get light blue)
1 roll frogg tape 2inch wide $9.00
Total just for supplies if you did not have this on hand. about 128.00 dollars plus paper and pens and time, lots of time~ So now you will have left over paint and maybe some scrap wood that could be used to make smaller ones for free!!
I am so addicted to your posts. As usual, very informative and entertaining.
I’m absolutely fascinated by this post. Thanks so much for sharing the meanings of hex signs and quilt patterns, especially as they helped slaves identify safe houses. But you went on to include much practical detail on the quilt murals -/ weight, cost, etc. this is one of my favorite posts I’ve read in a while. Thanks for taking time to inform us all.