Petaluma couple dresses up barns with American quilts
When Rick Carroll retired as a heavy equipment mover, wife Sandy laid down the law. There would be no dozing in front of the TV all day.
The pair found plenty to do in their garden, a fanciful playground of roses, dahlias in late summer and cattle troughs planted with flowers and organic produce. Everywhere are whimsical surprises of repurposed objects, like an old iron bedpost with a flower bed for a mattress and a vintage metal swingset painted and hung with baskets of vivid geraniums. But they found their true calling in retirement during the middle of the pandemic.
Last summer, they decided to experiment with barn quilts — charming paintings of quilt square designs done on wood and hung on fences, barns and sides of buildings. This pure Americana art adds a bright note to the country landscape during the hot days of summer when Sonoma County’s back roads fade to the dull yellow of dried grass.
They started with one just for something to do. Then one quilt followed another. As they installed their colorful artwork along a fence at the front of their property, it began to catch the eye of neighbors and anyone driving past on rural Magnolia Avenue. The paint was barely dry when they suddenly found themselves with a growing little side business of people asking for a barn quilt of their own. So they started making the quilts for relatives and friends.
What is a barn quilt
The paintings look like real quilt squares, made with traditional patterns. They’re sealed with Verathane so they can withstand the elements while they’re on display outside.
“I just thought they’re cool and that other people might like them, too,” said Sandy, a longtime quilter who is naturally drawn to the distinctive, geometric lines of quilt designs. “I’ve met many neighbors we never would have met had we not put these out. I think it brings people together.”
Donna Sue Groves started the barn quilt movement 20 years ago to fulfill a promise to her mother, one of a family of quilters. Groves was not a quilter, but she had the idea of painting a quilt on her mother’s old tobacco barn in southern Ohio to spruce it up. When she finally got around to it, Groves decided to create a series of quilt squares for other barns in the area that would, together, become a tourist draw. People would flock to Adams County to drive the quilt square trail and hopefully buy fabric quilts made by local artists.
The idea caught on, resulting in the American Quilt Trail, an organized network across 40 states and Canada featuring more than 3,000 painted quilt blocks adorning the sides of barns, sheds, wineries and other historic and agricultural buildings. Lake County has stitched together California’s first Quilt Trail with more than 100 quilt blocks visible to the public .
For the Carrolls, their barn quilt-making venture is more creative expression than retirement side hustle. But the demand is such that they put a sign in their front yard and so far have sold about 20 in various sizes, from 2 by 2 feet to 4 by 4 feet ($90-$240). They also have made miniatures for the sides of the birdhouses that dot their 5-acre farm, and they will make larger pieces or custom sizes.
When they started the project last summer, they used whatever wood they had around.
“We first started with regular plywood, because we didn’t know,” Sandy said. “But as we read more and after I got a book on barn quilt making, we switched to MDO board, which is supposed to be more durable.”
MDO plywood is strong and weather-resistant, making it suitable for outdoor applications.
Neither of the Carrolls are artists or adept at drawing. So they use existing designs, many culled from a favorite book, “Barn Quilt Addictions” by Talara Parrish.
The designs often appear abstract at first glance. But they do resemble familiar things, and their names reflect that. Along the fence that runs to the side of their country home are barn quilts with common words and traditional names like “Kayak” with elongated forms that do look like kayaks, “Victorian Star,” “Love’s Blossom,” “Swallowtail” “Carpenter’s Wheel,” “Charlotte's Web” and “Navajo Tulip.”
They made their first barn quilt about seven years ago, after Sandy heard a speaker talk about them at a Petaluma Quilt Guild meeting.
“The next day, I got Rick and we got some wood, drew up a pinwheel, painted it and put it on the barn.” They made a few more, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that they picked up the art seriously and began to really experiment with materials, techniques and more advanced patterns.
“I thought how pretty they would be on the fence for everybody to see in a horrible time,” she said.
They initially worked out of their chicken barn. But the dust that drifted onto the still-drying paintings, plus the cold, prompted Rick to build a small insulated art studio within the barn where they now can work year-round in comfort.
The tape that must be applied and removed again and again can be tricky. Still, barn quilts are more forgiving than fabric quilts, Sandy said.
“You don’t have to worry about getting the seams to fit together. And if you mess up, Rick goes back with a paint brush and fixes it.”
They use standard outdoor paint over two coats of primer, sometimes painting up to seven coats of color to cover the primer. After it dries, Rick applies clear Verathane to front and back to protect it.
They recommend using high-quality Purdy brushes, which won’t shed onto the painting, and a high-quality Verathane that won’t yellow.
The blocks make for cheerful art in a garden as well. The Carrolls have adorned their chicken coop with painted quilt blocks featuring love birds, a rose and an iris. An owl, in homage to the barn owls that patrol the property, peers out from the side of a pump house. A cute mailbox is painted to look like a birdhouse, with its own barn quilt.
Rick said he really doesn’t have to be prodded away from the TV. It’s a pleasure to head out to the barn to tape and paint and create something that will bring pleasure to friends and family and strangers.
“I have not ever been a really artistic person. But this just feels good when they’re done,” he said. “It gives me pleasure, especially when we deliver them and see people’s faces get all excited. It’s the coolest thing.”
Rick and Sandy Carroll don’t have a website. They can be reached the old-fashioned way, by phone, at 707-762-1187.
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or email@example.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.
Features, The Press Democrat
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