photograph by Geoff Wood

Of all the places to find American folk art, who would’ve guessed that an entire movement could be born on the broad side of a barn? And yet, in rural areas across North Carolina, where old, rustic barns are almost as commonplace as mailboxes, bright paintings have transformed the landscape.

The mostly square murals are called barn quilts because they’re meant to look like traditional quilt blocks. Painted in bold colors, they often incorporate patterns you might see on, say, your grandmother’s old bedspread: the Compass Star, the Pinwheel, Storm at Sea, and other familiar designs. Make no mistake, though — there’s no limit to the creativity that can go into a barn quilt.

Several arts organizations have created barn-quilt trails, where the curious can follow maps to find each piece, scavenger hunt-style. Most of North Carolina’s quilt trails are in western counties, where the eye-catching designs are seemingly stitched into the countryside at every other bend in the road. But there are others scattered across the state. “To be driving and to see artwork just pop up around the corner, it’s such a fun adventure,” says Jane Lonon, the retired director of the Ashe County Arts Council.

Here are four options for a barn-quilt quest, from Ashe County in the northwest to Sampson County in the southeast.

Happy trails.

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Ashe County Barn Quilt Tours

A mural project that helped revitalize West Jefferson more than a dozen years ago was also a catalyst for Ashe County’s barn-quilt trail. “We wanted a way to expand that public art experience to outlying areas of the county,” recalls former arts council director Lonon. “Barn quilts are a perfect coming-together of the heritage art form of quilting, and of revering the architectural integrity of barns.” Today, Ashe County showcases about 150 barn quilts on six separate driving trails.

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Randolph County Quilt Trail

It’s been almost a decade since quilts began popping up on barns in Randolph County, and now, its trail of 44 even has an interactive map online. The trail showcases quilt squares that emphasize the county’s rural heritage, from tobacco and corn to cows, honeybees, and pottery. Kaitlyn Johnson, who oversees the trail, says she’s found that people generally “like riding around and seeing the countryside, and the quilts are part of that.”

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Person County Quilt Trail

If “everything is better in Person,” as the county’s tourism folks say, that also applies to its barn quilts. Take the painting of the General Lee, the iconic muscle car from the 1980s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. It hangs on the barn that houses the Boar’s Nest Dukes of Hazzard Museum in Rougemont. Person’s four-year-old trail features nearly 30 quilts, some representing the area’s strong tobacco heritage. “Our goal was to enhance the beauty of our county,” says Nancy McCormick, who chaired the quilt-trail committee.

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Sampson County Barn Quilt Trail

As the self-proclaimed “barn quilt capital of North Carolina,” Sampson County boasts nearly 150 quilts on its four-year-old trail — a checklist so lengthy that only three people claim to have visited every quilt. “It takes a long time to see them all, but it’s worth it,” says Sheila Barefoot, executive director of the Sampson County Convention and Visitors Bureau and one of the three individuals to accomplish the feat. Among the county’s more unusual quilts: In the town of Turkey, you’ll find a quilt adorned with, well, a turkey.

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Tomlin has been a features writer and columnist for the High Point Enterprise since 1990. His writing has won numerous state, regional, and national awards.