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Storms, cats and compasses: A folk art phenomenon spreads to downtown Columbus

 

Possum Town Quilters cofounder Judy Stokes, left, Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail Association President Rita Williams and Columbus Arts Council Director Lynn Brown, far right, hold a fabric quilt May 24 that Stokes made. It replicates her

Possum Town Quilters cofounder Judy Stokes, left, Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail Association President Rita Williams and Columbus Arts Council Director Lynn Brown, far right, hold a fabric quilt May 24 that Stokes made. It replicates her "Eye of the Storm" design on the 8-by-8-foot barn quilt mounted above, on the Rosenzweig Arts Center at 501 Main St. The barn quilt is part of the Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail started by Williams. Watana Cantrell of Vernon, Alabama, also helped make the fabric quilt, which will hang inside the arts center. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

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Rissa Lawrence of Caledonia is pictured outside The Princess Theater at 215 Fifth St. S. with a trio of feline folk art she created. Her

Rissa Lawrence of Caledonia is pictured outside The Princess Theater at 215 Fifth St. S. with a trio of feline folk art she created. Her "Cat Spinner," "Cat Quartet" and "Twisted Tails" barn quilts honor her son Bart Lawrence's beloved cats. Bart Lawrence is the proprietor of The Princess.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Amber Brislin and her daughter, Annabelle, take a recreational time-out Thursday by the

Amber Brislin and her daughter, Annabelle, take a recreational time-out Thursday by the "Colorful Compass" Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail addition on an outbuilding by their home at 424 Second St. S.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Jan Swoope

 

 

What began in Caledonia as an effort to decorate the countryside with barn quilts on old barns, churches and other structures has crossed into city limits to brighten downtown Columbus. The Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail, which in January boasted 38 barn quilts in the county, expanded to the historic city center this spring, passing the 60-mark -- a number steadily climbing, with more downtown locations in its sights. 

 

Four of the most recent Quilt Trail additions prominently bloomed on busy Fifth Street downtown. A fifth barn quilt is adding quaint charm to a nearby Southside neighborhood corner lot.  

 

"We're hoping these will be the catalyst to getting barn quilts going and taking off in downtown Columbus," said the Buttahatchee Quilt Trail's founding force, Rita Williams of Caledonia. She was originally inspired by quilt patterns on tobacco barns in the Kentucky countryside several years ago, as she and other Possum Town Quilters members made their way to Paducah for an American Quilter's Society QuiltWeek.  

 

Williams' enthusiasm spread to fellow quilters and then into the wider community as she started teaching classes. It led to formation of the nonprofit Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail Association, a collaboration with the Columbus Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau for inclusion of the Quilt Trail in April's Columbus Spring Pilgrimage, a grant from the Mississippi Hills Area Alliance and increasing publicity throughout the region. 

 

 

 

Birth of a storm  

 

The largest barn quilt downtown is mounted on the west side of the Columbus Arts Council's Rosenzweig Arts Center at 501 Main St. It faces Fifth Street North. The 8-by-8-foot, near-300-pound artwork titled "Eye of the Storm" is the brainchild of Possum Town Quilters cofounder Judy Stokes of New Hope. She based the design on a traditional quilt pattern called "Storm at Sea." 

 

Stokes first got the idea in early 2017, as she stood in a quilt shop in Sevierville, Tennessee. There she met a woman who had made fabric quilt squares based on barn quilt-style designs.  

 

"It intrigued me," Stokes said. "When I saw all those patterns I thought, 'If Rita would paint this, and the Possum Town Quilters could donate it to the arts center, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could get a barn quilt up downtown?" The Quilters regularly gather at the arts center, and Stokes felt strongly it was the right place for "Eye of the Storm."  

 

"We have just appreciated so much being able to meet there," she said. 

 

Reaching the end-goal wasn't necessarily a simple matter.  

 

"First, we needed to get Rita to say she'd do it, and get the Quilters to pay for (expenses), then go to the arts council board for permission, then to the Columbus Historic Preservation Commission for approval to hang it on the building," Stokes said. "It was a drawn-out process, but it's so rewarding to have a plan in your head, a seed planted like that, and then a year later, you see the seed grew." 

 

 

 

Hanging a "monster" 

 

Williams used 3/4-inch professional grade sign board for "Eye of the Storm." She primed it with three coats of exterior paint primer before executing the design in colors matching swatches Stokes used to make a fabric quilt of the same pattern. Stokes and Watana Cantrell of Vernon, Alabama, recently completed the fabric version and donated it on behalf of the Quilters to the arts center.  

 

As for the wooden twin, "Each barn quilt color has three to five coats of quality exterior semi-gloss paint," explained Williams. "Then we trim it out on back with treated 2-by-4s primed and painted to match."  

 

"Eye of the Storm" was constructed in two pieces, but even so, getting the weighty artwork up on the building proved problematic, until Stokes spotted Bostick Construction Co. working on a nearby business one day and suggested they be contacted right away.  

 

"It all came together, and I'm so happy it did, especially every time I drive through town," said Stokes,  

 

Williams added, "It was awesome to see it go up!"  

 

A heartfelt thanks she posted to Joe Bostick and the crew on the Quilt Trail's Facebook page reads: " ... We are forever grateful for your generous (help) to get this monster hung. It seriously could not have happened without you." 

 

 

 

Cat's meow 

 

A trio of feline-themed barn quilts was less hefty to mount a couple of days earlier at The Princess Theater a block and a half away, at 215 Fifth St. So. The 4-by-4-foot pieces weighing about 75 pounds each were created by Rissa Lawrence of Caledonia as a tribute to her son Bart Lawrence's beloved cats. Bart is proprietor of The Princess, a former vaudeville house and movie theater turned entertainment venue and sports bar. Permission from the Historic Preservation Commission was required in this instance, too. 

 

The three designs are titled, from left, "Cat Spinner," "Cat Quartet" and "Twisted Tails." 

 

"Cat Quartet" represents three cats currently living with Bart, plus a much-missed pet, Thomas, that passed away. All were rescues. 

 

"The orange cat is Sasha, the black cat is Willie, the black and white cat is Walter, and the gray cat is Thomas; he was Bart's very favorite," said his mother, who serves as vice president of the Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail Association.  

 

"Twisted Tails" is Thomas, Willie and Sasha -- and a brown cat included for variety. Rissa Lawrence found the patterns on Pinterest.  

 

"Pinterest is a barn quilt painter's friend," she declared. "There are thousands and thousands of barn quilt (designs) out there." 

 

As a retired mathematics teacher who logged 20 years with the Columbus Municipal School District, Lawrence is well-equipped to execute even complex barn quilt patterns.  

 

"It's just geometry," she said with a smile.  

 

 

 

In the neighborhood 

 

Amber and Quinn Brislin's residence at 424 Second St. S. is home to the fifth barn quilt in the downtown district.  

 

In a barn quilt painting class with Williams, Amber Brislin created a small 2-by-2-foot square she has in her home, but she was also inspired to apply for a commissioned Quilt Trail piece to display outdoors on a red barn-like shed. She chose the pattern "Colorful Compass." 

 

"A compass serves as a symbol of which way to go, what comes next, as a guide, and that's something I relate to," Brislin said. "I believe in letting happiness be your guide -- or compass." 

 

Reaction to the barn quilts has been positive. 

 

"Everybody I've talked to thinks it's just a cool idea," Brislin said. "It adds quaint charm and character." 

 

 

 

Momentum 

 

The Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail Association hopes to have 100 or more barn quilts up by the end of the year. That includes in other northeastern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama counties the Buttahatchee River, for which the Trail is named, flows. The Trail's first barn quilt went up in Monroe County in May and more are in progress. Lawrence, for example, is working on a large 8-by-8-foot design to go "on a gorgeous red barn" in that county. 

 

Barn quilt painting classes have also expanded outside Lowndes County, to Oktibbeha and Monroe Counties. They fill quickly. 

 

"We're getting more and more volunteers and people wanting to paint their own barn quilts. This is really spreading," Williams said. 

 

Columbus' downtown is likely to see more evidence of this Americana movement before too long. That's something enthusiasts like Brislin welcome. 

 

"Downtown Columbus is about charm, tradition and community," she said. "As the 'tradition of the Trail' spreads into the city limits, I find it adds another element -- or 'patch in the quilt' -- to the story that makes Columbus unique. Each quilt tells a story, just one more of the many stories Columbus has to tell." 

 

Editor's note: Buttahatchee Barn Quilt Trail brochures with addresses of 60-plus barn quilts are available at the Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center or Convention and Visitors Bureau office. Learn more at facebook.com/buttahatcheebqt/, or contact Williams at [email protected] or 662-574-1229.

 

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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