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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.