Sept./Oct. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell and Joyce Mansfield
Photos by Matt Salvo
'Quilts' blend art and agriculture
"Clark's Star," above, and "Flowers and Ferns," below, are part of the Lake County Quilt Trail.
Editor's note: This article inspired the start of the El Dorado County Quilt Trail Project in spring 2015. Look for barn quilts throughout that area or contact email@example.com or Linda George at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Call it an old-fashioned game of "I Spy" or a form of low-tech geocaching. Either way, the Lake County Quilt Trail offers an engaging exploration of a region known for its inactive volcano, Mount Konocti, and the largest freshwater lake in California, Clear Lake—as well as a vibrant agricultural landscape that yields winegrapes, pears, walnuts and more.
The journey begins when tourists pick up or print a map at www.lakecountyquilttrail.com and then hop in the car or on a bike to begin the search. What they find as they meander through towns and along country roads are some 70 colorful, hand-painted wooden quilt blocks—either 4 feet by 4 feet or 8 feet by 8 feet—mounted on historic barns, wineries and businesses.
"Clark's Star," for example, decorates a barn at the foot of Clark's Peak. The Mt. Konocti Growers pear cooperative displays a well-known pattern called "Lady of the Lake," and "Full Blown Rose" resides on a 100-year-old barn.
Squares with stories
"This is a way to bring art to the community," said quilt trail founder and agricultural leader Marilyn Holdenried. She and her husband, Myron, a fifth-generation Lake County farmer, own Wildhurst Vineyards and a tasting room, embellished with two quilt squares, in downtown Kelseyville.
Each installation has a story, as matching a historic barn or turn-of-the-century building with a quilt block goes beyond a simple geometric pattern. Those who join the quilt trail and display the painted squares choose the pattern they want reproduced—whether a traditional design or an adapted original creation. What they pick often says something about them, their family history or their artistic values. Volunteers then create the quilt square on a sheet of plywood.
Founder Marilyn Holdenried, center, and a small group of volunteers, including from left, Carol Maxwell, Gerri Groody, Annette Higday and Lyn Hilton, hand paint each block.
The Scully family of pear growers and packers, for example, recently installed the "Lake County Diamond" quilt block on their Scully Packing Co. in Finley. The design reflects their original pear crate label, which is one of the oldest labels in the county.
"I've had this dream ever since Lake County started its quilt trail, because I knew the label would make a perfect quilt square," said Toni Scully. "Lake County is recognized nationally and even internationally for its premium pears."
But why quilt squares? Holdenried said she thinks in part it's an art form immediately identified with the comfort of home, and asks, "What better way to welcome visitors than by making them feel at home?"
Quilt designs, from simple to intricate, are hand painted on wood squares and then installed on businesses, wineries and barns.
For generations, women have pieced together quilts—out of necessity and the desire to create things of beauty. In the hands of skilled needleworkers, they became treasured works of art passed from one generation to the next.
"American quilt makers have always exhibited their work and that of their kinfolk, primarily in rural church bazaars and county fairs," said Sandi Fox, former collection curator for quilts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "But since the 1970s, quilt designs have taken on added meaning."
The hallmark graphic designs and craftsmanship incorporated into quilts have moved from frontier bedsteads to fine art museums to public art installations that invite community exploration.
Started in Ohio in 2001, quilt trails are rapidly becoming a popular grassroots movement. (See Book Review.) Trails now link the nation coast-to-coast with quilt squares mounted on noteworthy rural buildings in about 50 U.S. counties and two Canadian provinces.
"Hawaiian Pineapple" adorns a barn surrounded by vineyards in Lake County's Big Valley.
Lake County's trail launched in 2010 and Holdenried calls the colorful graphic designs attached to distinctive buildings part of a "clothesline of quilts across America." Community delegations from other California counties have contacted her, she said, to learn more about launching their own quilt trails.
Plumas County started its Barn Quilt Trail as the 4-H Quincy Barn Quilt Project in 2011. Now countywide, its approximately 100 squares lead visitors through agricultural communities and the area's natural beauty.
With great care and attention to detail, Lake County volunteers create original designs or reproduce traditional quilt patterns on either 4-by-4 or 8-by-8-foot wooden blocks.
"The quilt trail has certainly exposed even the local people to areas that are agricultural around here, places they might not have ever gone," said Valerie Nellor, one of the first in Plumas County to install a quilt square. She now has six squares adorning the cottages of her lodging facility in Quincy, Ada's Place.
"A lot of our visitors are Bay Area people and they just need a rural experience," she said.
That holds true for Lake County as well, where tourists from bigger cities travel to enjoy the small-town environment and diverse recreational opportunities.
"It helps urban visitors identify with our agricultural roots," Scully said.
"It's exciting to see the number of people who stop to take pictures when they find the blocks," added Holdenried, who also founded the Kelseyville Pear Festival, held annually on the last Saturday in September. "Another sign of the quilt trail's popularity is that we are constantly having to refill the tourist racks around the county with maps."
The art is becoming popular in other ways in Lake County, she said, pointing to pendants, earrings and notecards featuring quilt trail designs. But it's the trail's big and bold wooden quilt blocks that continue to garner the most attention. You can't help but look for more once you've starting finding them.
Quilt trails create a bond for California farmers and ranchers with both the community and its visitors, according to Scully and Holdenried. By installing a square, they become part of a vibrant local and national public art project—and one that allows them to say "welcome" to all who pass by.
Kate Campbell and Joyce Mansfield
Destination: Lake County
There's always something to do in Lake County, especially this time of year, as the entire region celebrates harvest season for pears, winegrapes and more.
- Kelseyville Pear Festival, Sept. 27: Enjoy pears, of course, as well as other food, arts, music and historical exhibits. www.kelseyvillepearfestival.com
- Restaurant Pearings, Sept. 1-30: In honor of the month's traditional pear harvest time, restaurants throughout the county add pear dishes and wine pairings to their menus.
- Wine tasting: Lake County's 167 winegrape growers and 32 wineries offer fine wines in a relaxed, rural setting. www.lakecountywineries.org
- Historic Courthouse Museum, Lakeport: The county's two-story museum, built in 1871, is a California historical landmark, with pioneer and Native American artifacts, as well as geologic and mineral displays. www.co.lake.ca.us
- Featherbed Railroad Caboose Bed & Breakfast, Nice: Guests stay in one of nine vintage railroad cabooses and dine on breakfasts featuring locally grown ingredients and house-made sausage. www.featherbedrailroad.com
- Kerrie's Quilting, Lakeport: Classes, retreats and an array of quilting supplies attract needle-crafters from all over the state—including those exploring the Lake County Quilt Trail. www.kerriesquilting.com