The Corn and Beans / Prairie Queen Project by Matt drissell

In the late 1990’s, barn quilts began to appear in rural Ohio communities.

These large paintings are based on traditional quilt block patterns and are anchored to the sides of barns throughout the countryside.

The phenomenon quickly spread and barn quilt trails can now be found in more than half the states in the country; recent tours have been established from California to Vermont. The barn quilt movement does though remain highly concentrated in the Midwest.

Iowa’s Grundy County alone includes a 65-mile loop route that showcases 64 barn quilts. These works draw visitors to rural communities and point toward a local craft heritage.

The block patterns in the design often have ties with the farmstead, based on a specific family heirloom quilt. Curiously, this is one of the few recent North American art movements originating outside of urban centers. It has clearly been successful, resonating with many as the movement continues to grow and spread.

For my project, I have created a quilt for the small barn on the site of the former Kuhl Century Farm, in Sioux Center, Iowa. The barn can be found on the south end of the Dordt College Campus, adjacent to the bike trail and prairie. This former homestead, an historic landmark for the community, once included a large barn and home. Both are now gone.

My barn quilt is attached to the north end of the remaining structure that faces campus, a building referred to as the “hog house.” My family and I live nearby and pass this site on our near daily treks through the prairie. My eyes then naturally turned toward this site as I have previously made barn quilts for other locations.

Top: Missouri Puzzle installed in Kirksville, MO Bottom: Harvest Star installed in Sioux Center, IA

Upon first encounter, the visual elements of Corn and Beans / Prairie Queen dominate your impression.

Each 4 x 4' square is filled with simple shapes - triangles and squares - rendered with solid colors of green, yellow, white, and brown. These shapes are derived from quilt block patterns which anchor the work locally; when I select a quilt block for the painting, I seek a pattern whose name and history instills a local connection.

For the Kuhl Farm Barn Quilt, the top three block patterns are called Corn and Beans, and the bottom pattern is called the Prairie Queen. These designs place the work in this specific location, suggesting the legacy of land use for the state of Iowa, for Sioux Center, and for Dordt College.

In many ways, this stylistic mixing has precedent in recent art history.

In the 1970’s artists such as Miriam Shapiro began to create works that included fibers and quilting, endeavors then labelled craft and not fine art. Works made of fabric scraps referencing the legacy of blankets were considered weak or unimportant, pejoratively deemed feminine. They were not welcomed in an art gallery alongside monumental abstract paintings that asserted their presence.

Instead of accepting a stratified hierarchy of what art was supposed to be, women artists of the 1970’s bucked trends and changed the landscape.

Miriam Shapiro Anatomy of a Kimono 1976 10 panel piece 52 feet long

I create barn quilts inspired by Miriam Shapiro.

Through her efforts, art now is more inclusive, offering a broader range of visuals to engage with. All realms of experience can form the basis for art making, even those drawn from Grandma’s quilt. I believe this connecting, relational tendency is intrinsic to art.

Wendell Berry notes this at the beginning of his essay Style and Grace when he says:

"Works of art participate in our lives; we are not just distant observers of their lives. They are in conversation among themselves and with us.”

Works of art do not need to simply be passive aesthetic objects on a gallery wall but can instead become part of our lives, shaping and changing who we are – if and when we allow them to.

The Corn and Beans / Prairie Queen project harkens still further back into art history, to the minimalist geometric abstraction of artist Frank Stella’s work.

This is a curious dissonance as the rural origins of the quilt pattern are reminiscent of the sleek modern formalism of Stella’s paintings made during the 1950’s and 60’s.

I have previously made an aesthetic connection with Stella’s era, Mid-Century American Modernism.

Below you see details of works by Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, Stella’s contemporaries who worked primarily in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

These modern artists were famous for embracing the material qualities of paint. They let the paint simply be shape, line, and color through straight edges, drips, and spills, accentuating the physical process of their works.

In many ways, I am doing something similar with my Shelf Life Series...

Blast of Fun 2016 37 3/8 x 28” Water, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, guar gum, cellulose gum, xanthum gum, natural and artificial flavors, blue 1, red 40, resin, on panel
Good Source of Vitamin-C (Kool Aid) 2013, 2015 48 x 37” Citric acid, calcium phosphate, maltodextrin, salt, contains less than 2% of natural flavors, lemon juice solids, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), vitamin E, acetate, artificial color, red 40, blue 1, bha (preserves freshness), polyurethane, on panel
Chocolate Ice Cream 2012 48 x 36” Milk, cream, buttermilk, sugar, whey, corn syrup, cocoa processed with alkali, contains less than 2% of the following: mono- and diglycerides, guar gum, sodium phosphate, cellulose gum, sodium citrate, polysorbate 80, polyurethane, on panel

I too create abstract works that puddle and splash. Instead of using paint though, I melt and drip food products such as popsicles, kool-aid, and ice cream. These are then preserved with a resin clear coat.

By using food, I separate company with Stella, Pollock and Frankenthaler. Instead of using paint as paint in the straightforward manner of the modernists, I use food as paint, establishing an emblematic connection.

Blast of Fun in Process

The use of food products knits further ties with my work, rooting it not in abstraction but in the specifics of place - of the midwest and of northwest Iowa.

For the Barn Quilt, I am using a variety of locally grown, sourced, and produced materials to create the colors and patterns.

For the Corn and Beans section, I was given locally grown field corn and soybeans from the Sioux Center Farmers Co-op, and I gathered ground corn meal from the local Heritage Village Harvest Festival in early September. Covering these organic items are food products derived from these ingredients: layers of Mountain Dew and Soymilk ice cream. Additionally, there are dark tones achieved with soil scraped from a local corn field

Dordt College Prairie

For the lower quilt block, Prairie Queen, I also used a variety of local materials. These include gathered Prairie plants - Maximillian sunflowers, New England aster, and Smooth Blue asters, harvested at the height of their color in the fall. Here you also see prominent large dark tones, this time derived from prairie soil.

Both the food products and the prairie plants were affixed to the wood panels with exterior urethanes and industrial tractor clear coats. In fact, the green of the top section is created with John Deere tractor paint.

The process of spackling soil, crushing flowers, or placing corn kernels required time and attention. This connection to the material, just like the embrace of the relational, is an essential part of art making.

Michael Crawford's 2009 book Shop class as Soulcraft finds significance in the manual arts. Though holding an advanced degree in philosophy, Crawford found himself more at home in a motorcycle repair shop than a think tank. In Soulcraft he proceeds to reflect upon the many benefits of the trades including how these skills demand the participant's responsibility. Crawford notes this on page 56 and 57:

“There seems to be an ideology of freedom at the heart of consumerist material culture; a promise to disburden us of mental and bodily involvement with our own stuff so we can pursue ends we have freely chosen…to be master of your own stuff entails also being mastered by it.”

Both the mechanic and I would add, the artist are directly involved with their implements and materials for better and worse. They are forced to be personally responsible, mastered by what they use. This charge is rare in modern life when tools are taken away and instead we are handed a remote control. Crawford notes on page 69:

“the problem is…that we have come to live in a world that precisely does not elicit our instrumentality, the embodied kind that is original to us. We have too few occasions to do anything, because of a certain predetermination of things from afar."

Much of contemporary life instead leads us to passively interact with touch screens while living in the cloud - and if something does not work, we simply command-Z it away. By creating, an artist gets dirty, grappling with messes and gravity and the reality of the material world. Instead of an escape, we can find an embodied reality in the art studio.

In many ways, this hog barn is a significant focal point. It, like many of the midwestern barns that feature barn quilts are vestigial remnants of the past. They sit in what is left of the original farmsteads, nearby thousands of acres of row crops.

Leman Northway/Flickr

Previously, these barns housed animals, feed, and accessories to accompany the demands of farm life. As farming practices shifted over the years, barns were not as necessary and became neglected. Consequently, the barn quilt movement breathes new life into the old, highlighting what has been and perhaps suggesting what could be. And yet, the inside the quilt-adorned barn is often neglected or used as storage for equipment and implements, far removed from the array of previous necessities.

And many times, the barns themselves do not survive – when I first dreamed up this project years ago, I hoped to install it on the large Kuhl farm barn, a structure which has since been destroyed.

This too is a realm that my work explores – the broader context of societal life. Bigger issues are considered, themes that build upon the implications of daily decisions.

In that spirit, my work could raise larger questions about environmental responsibility and poverty, and could ask daily questions of food and technology. The Corn and Beans/Prairie Queen project suggests some of these complexities, initiating a conversation about the legacy of soil and land, rural traditions and culture, what has been and what could be.

Matt Drissell is an Associate Professor of Art at Dordt College. He has an M.F.A. in Painting from New York Academy of Art and a B.A. in Art from Wheaton College (IL). Matt has also been a certified art teacher, having taught middle and high school art for five years in Milwaukee and St. Louis. He lives is Sioux Center, Iowa, with his family. Named a 2015 - 16 Artist Fellow by the Iowa Arts Council, his current projects consider agriculture and sustainability.

This project possible thanks to the generosity of the

Created By
Matt Drissell


Created with images by switz1873 - "IMG_1126" • bill.showalter - "#8 Tennesse Quilt Trail Greene County"

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