Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I’m doing a Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview with Donna Sue Groves. Today’s date is June 18th, 2008. We are in Columbus, Ohio, at the National Quilting Association’s quilt show. Donna Sue, thank you for doing this interview with me.
Donna Sue Groves (DG): Thank you, Karen, for asking me.
KM: And tell me about your Tree of Life quilt.
DG: My Tree of Life quilt. Well, my father died in 1976 and my mother had returned to quilting. I was imprinted early with my paternal and maternal grandmothers as quilters, as well as mother. I did not learn to quilt nor did I have any desire to learn quilting. I saw a class advertised in the Xenia, Ohio newspaper and since mother was quilting again, I thought I would surprise her and take this class and learn to quilt instantaneously. I signed up for the intermediate class because I was Miss Know-It-All since my grandmothers and aunts and my mother were quilters, I figured I could just skip the beginner’s class and go into the second one. Our project was to make a Tree of Life with points; I mean lots and lots of points. Uh-huh, right?! Wrong!
So, I created the Tree of Life, and I did pretty well on my points. I received high praise from my classmates, my instructor and everyone was proud of me. I think they were glad the class ended; they didn’t have to listen to my mouth anymore about how much work it was. When we got to the point that we were going to make it into a quilt with binding and such we then had the lesson on quilting and the use of templates. Well, I got excited about templates, I just couldn’t believe that I could just place templates on the white background beside the tree and draw around them and then I could quilt over them. Perfect. So easy. I got carried away and picked a template of a biplane which was half as big as the tree, and put it up in the right corner of the quilt, in the sky area. I carefully quilted over it. I was mortified; it looked ugly, childish and horrible almost bigger than the tree itself. I was so upset with myself and disappointed. I ruined it. Then the class was over and I was very ashamed. I took the quilt to mother and threw it in the living room, and said, ‘Here, you finish it.’ And she finished hand quitting it, and then she hung it on a refrigerator. No, that’s a joke; she hung it on the wall. So that’s my experience with my quilt.
KM: And you never made another one?
DG: No! No, never. But I love quilts. I love fabric. I love the stories. I love the patterns. I loved being around my grandmothers when they were quilting. My father’s mother, LaDona Groves, did mostly appliqué than she did traditional triangles and squares. My mother’s mother, Mamie Myrtle Green, did more geometric designs. I don’t remember her doing appliqué. I remember my grandmother Groves one autumn, when I was out staying with her, sent me out to the yard and told me to go out and pick up three maple leaves that I liked. My favorite ones. I studied and looked and I did as she told and brought them back to her and said, ‘What are you going to do with them?’ And she said, ‘You’ll see.’ Every time I visited her, I’d say, ‘What did you do with my maple leaves, Grandma?’ and she’d say, ‘You’ll see.’ About eight, nine months later, in the spring or early summer, she pulled out a quilt that was for me and it had appliquéd maple leaves in orange and brown colors. It was magic. In it were the very outlines of the leaves that I picked up off the ground that she had used as templates.
KM: So why isn’t quiltmaking your thing since you love them so much?
DG: Because I can’t sit still long enough. [laughs.] I’m on to the next story, the next pattern, and the next piece of fabric. I’m just fascinated with mourning prints or the shirting and prints died with madder, m-a-d-d-e-r. I got so excited in the early nineties that I decided I was going to invest in madder and plant it out behind the barn and someday somebody would want the madder so they could dye fabric. Mother has protected my madder bed for years. The roots must be as big as our wrists by now. In case anybody is interested in madder, you can find it in Adams County, Ohio. I think probably the biggest factor for me not quilting and cutting the pieces out has to do with either a learning disability or the fact that I did not grasp math and the concepts of math early on. Plus, I was so afraid of making mistakes. It’s the fear factor, and I didn’t allow myself to try for fear of failure. But, I’m always on the watch for the stories and the fabrics and the patterns. That’s what makes me happy.
KM: So tell me about the quilt barn project.
DG: The quilt barn project is a project, or it was an idea, a concept, that probably was birthed about the same time that I watched my grandmother’s quilt and when we would go visit them in the Roane County, West Virginia. During road trips with Mother and Dad, my mother created a car game to keep my brother and I quiet. Since we grew up in West Virginia you can’t play the typical license plate car game when you’re traveling on the back roads of West Virginia, because all you saw was West Virginia license plates. So Mother created a car game and we counted barns. If it was a certain kind of barn, you got two points; if it was another kind of barn, you got three points; if it had outdoor advertising on it, you got a bonus of ten points if you could read it. Barns like “Chew Mail Pouch” or “See Rock City” or “RC Cola,” all kinds of outdoor advertisements. Red barns were higher points. The game led to discussions and questions about the barns, “Were they an English barn, were they Welsh, German and what the purpose of the barns was?” It became a history and cultural opportunity for my mother to engage my brother and I, and my father too, in conversational teaching moments, whether I knew it or not, and they were exciting. I looked forward to seeing barns. And then as a teenager, we traveled through Pennsylvania, where I was first introduced to the German, Pennsylvania Dutch barns with their hex signs which had the most colorful, wonderful, geometric designs on them, and they were worth fifty points in our car game and that was pretty exciting.
So, as you can see, I was imprinted with the love of barns, as I said, and then imprinted early with quilting and the designs. Both were a major part of my childhood and represented my culture and heritage and my love of home and family. In 1968 we moved away from West Virginia, and moved to the flatland of Ohio, and then eventually the path took my mother and me to southern Ohio, to Adams County where we bought a farm that had a barn on it. So, I finally had a barn that actually belonged to us. One day as mother and I stood looking at our barn in 1989, it was a tobacco barn, and I, not knowing that people actually grew tobacco and dried it in barns was surprised to see how it differed from the barns of my childhood. I didn’t understand about tobacco barns because we didn’t see those in West Virginia or in our travels. I said to Mother, ‘This is the ugliest looking barn I’ve ever seen in my life! It needs some color, and I think I’ll paint you a quilt square on it someday.’ Well, that promise or that outburst became a continuous promise from 1989 through the years, until the year 2000. Friends of mine, Pete Whan with the Nature Conservancy and Elaine Collins, the Economic Development Director in Adams County approached me and said, ‘Donna, your mom’s getting older, and that’s really a great idea, you wanting to create a quilt square for her and paint it on the barn. Pete and I will volunteer to help you.’ And I said, ‘Great. I think that if we’re going to do one, we should consider doing a bunch of quilt squares, because I think we can create a driving trail and people will come to Adams County to drive a trail, to see our barns with quilt squares on them, and ultimately that will create economic opportunity. Our quilters can sell wall hangings and quilts based on these quilt squares, and our artists and photographers can make note cards, and we can have t-shirts, and our potters will make coffee mugs, and we can raise money which will help everybody locally.’ And they said, ‘Oh, how can we do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, we need to form a committee and create a plan of action.’
So we did, and our first committee meeting was in January of 2001, in Adams County. My mother was part of that committee. Several business owners, a couple of barn owners, someone from the Chamber of Commerce and the Travel and Tourism Bureau, there were about ten, twelve of us, sat down together and created this model on how we would create a driving trail. Our goal was to hang or to paint three quilt squares on barns in 2001. We applied to the Ohio Arts Council and received funding for our first three quilt squares, and someone on our committee, Judy Lewis who owns Lewis Mountain Herb Farm, volunteered that she wanted to have the first quilt square and she wanted it dedicated at her festival in October 2001. We all agreed that that would be fine. Mother had researched traditional old quilt square patterns, we tried to be very conscientious about copyright with the concern that we did not infringe on artists or designers of any quilt patterns. So Mother came up with about thirty-five squares, and we voted on twenty, the committee, that we wanted to do. The reason we chose twenty quilt squares to develop a quilt trail, a driving loop, was because mother said that twenty quilt squares make up an average size bed quilt. We felt that the trail needed a beginning or it might go on forever.
So the end of the beginning of the story, or the end of that story for the moment, is we hung our first quilt square October 2001, at the Lewis Mountain Herb Fair, with an attendance of about 10,000 to 15,000 people. Then the story was out. The press picked it up. An adjoining county, Brown County, Ohio, called and said, ‘We love it. How do we do it?’ Tennessee read an article in a local magazine. They called and wanted to know how to do the project. Iowa wanted to duplicate the project. I spoke at a conference in Nebraska. Pat Gorman from Iowa was there and heard me talk about the trail. When I got back home, Pat called me and said, ‘Donna Sue, Grundy County may not have all of the bridges as Madison County but we have the barns. How do we do the project?’ So Pat and I collaborated. I went out two or three different times to work with Grundy County and help them to get a good start. And the rest is history. Now we’re up to about twenty-two states, and twenty counties in Ohio. I’m very proud.
KM: What do you think the future of it will be?
DG: I don’t know what the future holds. I see the project continuing to grow. I believe that right now, it needs leadership. Nationally we need to come together for people to have an opportunity to meet one another, to share their stories, to talk. The project, even though it’s about quilting and barns it is also about celebrating our rural heritage and building on our own unique assets. I guess I didn’t even explain what the project was, did I? The Quilt Barn Trail is hanging–painting a quilt square on plywood or MDO board or some type of sign board and then attaching it on a barn, farm out-building and then creating a driving tour. I guess that gives you a general idea of what this quilt square idea is and what its purpose. I lost my train of thought.
Where does it go from here? I’m hopeful that now that I am no longer working for the Ohio Arts Council full time that I’ll have more time to devote to the trail development and can pull together a national coalition for conversation with the states on how they might like to come together in a collaborative fashion to share their stories and to plan on how we all might get together. The beauty of this project, the Quilt Trail and the quilt barn project, for me, is not so much as the creation of the quilt squares that are hung or painted on the barns, but it’s about the community process and grassroots folks coming together, using what they believe are their best assets, and building on and celebrating their heritage. There’s a lot of joy and laughter that’s created through the process of creating these trails. People really have fun with it. It’s a low-cost, inexpensive project and it’s changed my whole life.
KM: So what pattern did you pick for your barn, your mother’s barn?
DG: Well, I asked Mother because which one she wanted out of those twenty that we voted on, and Mother said that she wanted the Ohio Star. But the gal that was on the committee that wanted one for her barn to be dedicated in October wanted the Ohio Star, and since there’s a zillion patterns, Mother graciously said that that was fine. And as the patterns were chosen, we let people choose what they wanted. The barn owners chose which pattern they wanted and the colors. And as time went by, Mother still hadn’t chosen her pattern. We talked about it, we talked about it, and finally, she said Snail’s Trail.
KM: What color is it?
DG: It’s Martha Stewart colors, because I didn’t know what colors to pick and Mother didn’t tell me what colors to pick, so it was painted by an artist, Jeff Schenkel, from Marietta, Ohio, and we left the color choice up to Jeff. And it’s green and–
Maxine Groves (MG): [DG’s mother.] Grey.
DG: Gray? Green and gray?
DG: And a mauve-y color. Martha Stewart colors. It was started in 2001, so Martha Stewart colors about 2003. Mom didn’t get her quilt square till about two-and-a-half years into the project.
KM: How big are they?
DG: Ours is an eight-by-eight. They vary from ten-by-ten or eight-by-eight or four-by-four or two-by-two. It just depends on where the barn is located. If the barn is sitting right on the side of the road, you don’t want a ten-by-ten quilt square right in your face, or if it’s way off in the field, it’s really hard to see an eight-by-eight. We started out painting–thought we would paint quilt squares on barns and that it would be a job creation for local artists, but we didn’t factor in the fact that these old barns, whether they’re out of chestnut wood or oak, those that are over a hundred years old, the veins in the barn, the wood, are so wide and the wood is so old, it just sucks up coat after coat after coat of paint. So we learned very quickly that painting directly on them wasn’t the best way, plus I had a panic attack thinking that we had just destroyed an opportunity for property owners, barn owners, making this a national heritage site of a two-hundred-year-old barn, farm barn or something. So we chose to stop painting them. Plus the cost to paint them on this MDO or pine board is so much less, to paint them flat on the ground or on sawhorses, because anyone can get into the process. Most of the quilters do their thing with marking the actual quilt square by drawing it, the design, and then working with the artists or the painters. Anyone can paint one. Children can paint it. Elders can paint it. As long as they can paint between two lines, and even if they can’t, it can be touched up, so the whole community can participate in this painting process of quilt squares.
KM: Very cool. Did you ever think it would be as big as it is?
DG: I had a sneaking suspicion that if it were good enough for Chew Mail Pouch in 1880, whenever they started using outdoor barns for advertising, and if the entire East Coast and Appalachian Mountain Range had “See Rock City” or what was the other one? ‘See Rock City’ and ‘R C Coca’ was another one and ‘Natural Bridge.’ You used to see those, too. And also those little Burma Shave signs that we might be onto something, if it worked for them. My greatest fear with the project is that some entrepreneur, that maybe big business, corporate business, will see the same thing, an opportunity, in a different way than I see it. I see combining our barns and our quilting heritage and holding or using that to celebrate who we are, the best of who we are. I’m so afraid that corporate America will come in and use the side of our barns now for advertisement, and that worries me. Hopefully, hopefully, our farmers and property owners and communities will be very mindful and thoughtful about change and how we use those barns, but when times are bad and money is short, money often speaks, and if it means putting food on the table versus getting $150 a month or $250 a quarter from a simple sign on the side of your barn, those are tough decisions to make. I hope we don’t start to see commercial ads along our rural roads and highways! But that, I do worry about that.
I thought that it would grow, it would probably grow out throughout the Appalachian region, the thirteen states. Really never thought so much about the United States in 2001, and it growing that big, but what’s interesting is now that for the last seven years, and I’ve watched it go into Iowa and Missouri and Kansas and Indiana and Illinois and Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia. As I’ve watched it grow and participated in that growth, I’ve come to realize that what I didn’t realize before, that rural people, in our rural lands, the places that people settled with their families and on small farms, are truly the backbone of America, and that we’re not so different from one another. I never thought about Iowa up until 2002. I never really gave a lot of thought about Illinois or Indiana. Now, when I hear the news of the great flooding that’s happening in Iowa or along the Mississippi, now I reflect and think about those folks. My life always has been, tied to other states, counties, but now I think about how really really flat we are and how we’re intertwined and connected together. You can take one project, Adams County, Ohio for example; you could take our project in 2001, teleport it to Mason County, West Virginia, right now. They’re planning theirs. They have their first quilt square up. You couldn’t tell the difference except the names have changed and maybe the shapes of the barns. We’re all one family, in a sense. We all have similar dreams, hopes, and aspirations.
KM: There’s power in quilting. I believe that.
DG: There is power in quilts. Everybody has a quilt story. Everybody remembers a quilt. People run to their closets or pull out from under the beds or in the basement or wherever they have them hidden. This project, the Quilt Trail development, I believe, has really brought more focus on quilts and barns, too, just equally. Barns are, hopefully, the barns will be preserved. They’re in more danger than the quilts are of disappearing, I think, because the quilts have a little more protection. But from the beginning, part of my dream for this whole project was that not only would we use quilt squares in a public venue on our barns to celebrate who we are and to create economic opportunity, but also I had hoped that we would be able to preserve those stories, about those that built the barns and the family farm stories and the quilts. Of equal importance are the quilts in those families and the stories that go along with them. Because preserving those stories and hearing and listening to them, will help us to know where we came from and who we came from. We can reflect on the strength that it took to–and energy and focus and dedication and hardship, all of those things that our foremothers and forefathers did so we could be where we are today. And we need to remember those stories. We need to celebrate who they were because that’s our DNA, maybe our larger community DNA connects us all together just like a quilt.
KM: Is there anything else you want to share?
DG: I don’t think so.
KM: You did great. All right, we’re going to conclude our interview at 4:55 [p.m.].