Combine quilting and painting, and you have an art form called barn quilts. You see these throughout Nebraska, and they’re the subject of a new NET documentary, “Patchwork on the Plains: Nebraska’s Barn Quilt Culture.” Here is the story of one barn quilt and how this folk art style is becoming more popular.
It’s been 48 years, but Cindy Janke still vividly remembers that day. She was nine-years-old, coming home from school to eat lunch.
Watch the premiere of “Patchwork on the Plains: Nebraska’s Barn Quilt Culture” on Thursday, March 9 at 7 p.m. CT on NET Television. More information on the program at: netNebraska.org/barnquilts
“Dad was sitting on the porch. He just told me that David had died, and I remember Dad sitting on the porch and telling me, because as we each came home from school he would tell us,” Janke recalled. Her brother David had been killed in combat in Vietnam. He was just 23 years old.
“He left for Vietnam on my mom’s birthday in January, and he died on Mother’s Day,” she said.
Today Janke stands outside her house on a sleepy street in the small northeast Nebraska town of Pender. She calls attention to a four foot by four foot square piece of art near a window on the outside of her house. With red and white stripes and a gold star on a blue background in the left corner, it looks like a folded American flag.
“I found this, I think it’s called American Pride, and I took it and put a gold star on it because we are a gold star family,” Janke said.
The piece of art Janke painted in memory of her brother is called a barn quilt. You’ve likely seen some of these plywood paintings that resemble quilts. They’re common throughout Nebraska and the country, a growing folk art phenomenon.
“A barn’s a big canvas, just a big space that kind of begs for some kind of adornment,” said Suzi Parron, author of the book “Following the Barn Quilt Trail.” “Barn quilts are replicas of cloth quilts, in that a cloth quilt is made up of squares. It’s like a repeated pattern. A barn quilt, typically you take one of those squares, so it’s a replica of an image that would be quilted, but it’s simplified by taking just that one square and then making it large.”
A barn quilt adorns the outside of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, where George Neubert is director. He said barn quilts are a fairly modern trend, but barn art is centuries-old.
“Often the builders early on, who were proud of their barn building, started decorating the barns with their own motifs and designs on the barns were made by the builders,” said Neubert, who was also longtime director of UNL’s Sheldon Museum of Art. “As that moved forward the next 10 to 20 years, then obviously the residents began to also do their own decorating, and that decoration came a lot of times from European tradition, like the hex sign and some of the things for good will and good support, in terms of good luck and that sort of thing.”
“People have always done that, have always decorated barns,” Parron said. “The barn quilt movement in Nebraska really seems to celebrate communities. A lot of involvement with the 4-H groups, a lot of involvement with the fair, like out in Gage County with the fairgrounds. Just people who really want to bring something to their community.”
A barn quilt on the outside of the Gage County Historical Society and Museum duplicates an actual quilt that kept an Ohio soldier warm during the Civil War. Kay McKinzie of Beatrice painted this barn quilt and has helped with others in Gage County.
“I think the neat thing about barn quilts is if you think back through our heritage, quilts have always been a part of our lives,” McKinzie said. “You maybe got one as a commemorative when you were born, or you slept under one at grandma’s house, or maybe grandma made you one before she passed away. We all have ties to quilts.”
“Folk art is made by folks, in the simplest terms,” Neubert added. “Often untrained, they don’t go off to get an MFA, a master’s degree in fine arts and painting at university, but a lot of times (they are) craftsmen and skilled people who have interest in that kind of thing. Today, when you talk about barn quilts, it’s been a kind of revival of that as a decoration.”
The revival is obvious in Pender. In 2010 the town embarked on an ambitious plan to make 125 barn quilts to celebrate its 125th birthday. Cindy Janke’s patriotic barn quilt was one of them. It helps celebrate her small town, but also helps her remember the brother she lost many years ago.
“Whenever I talk about my brother, I feel immense pride that he served our country and gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”