WILLMAR — For decades people have brightened up the outside of their barns, homes and garages with wood barn quilts. They are splashes of color and history that can be found throughout the United States. So, when the Willmar Arts Council wanted to find a way to bring a colorful, permanent art display to the Barn Theatre, it didn't take long to land on a project.

"There is so much empty wall space in this building," said Janet Olney, executive director of the arts council. "What is more appropriate than a barn quilt?"

The council had wanted to do the project in 2020, but it was postponed until this spring due to the pandemic. With funding from the Willmar Area Community Foundation, the council put out the call to artists who would be interested in creating a quilt. Seven artists answered — Ron Adams, LeAnn Atchinson, Pauline Donahue, Dona Larkin, Olney, Pauline Prawl and Monica Villars.

"I thought that creating barn quilt designs for the Barn Theatre was a truly inspired idea," Adams said. "It is so interesting to see the wide variety of ideas that each artist comes up with."

Joanna Korsmo Prosser created "Eagle's Wings" in memory of her father, David Korsmo. Contributed / Joanna Korsmo Prosser
Joanna Korsmo Prosser created "Eagle's Wings" in memory of her father, David Korsmo. Contributed / Joanna Korsmo Prosser

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In addition, the council asked Joanna Korsmo Prosser to make a quilt in memory of her father, David Korsmo, who died in March. He was a council board member for six years, serving as president for two, and the council felt having a quilt done would be a meaningful way by which to remember him. Funds donated in Korsmo's memory were also used toward the project.

"This creative opportunity felt like a beautiful way to pay tribute to him," Prosser said.

The eight quilts will be hung throughout the Barn Theatre as a permanent art display.

"They are wonderful," said Naomi Lindquist, operations manager at the Barn. "They are beautiful, they are going to add so much color."

The designs

Each of the quilts are 4 feet by 4 feet, and made of hardboard and framed. The designs are as varied as the artists who created them.

"The Barn" by Pauline Prawl 

Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"The Barn" by Pauline Prawl Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Prawl created an illustration of a traditional red barn with a large barn quilt on it. The piece is called "The Barn."

Larkin was inspired by visions of Willmar's lakes, boats, wildlife and trees for her piece, "Homeward Bound."

"I've always loved the seagulls around the lakes. The green in my design represents the greenery around the lakes," Larkin said.

"Homeward Bound" by Dona Larkin


Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"Homeward Bound" by Dona Larkin Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Adams created a log cabin quilt block inspired piece called "Barn Raising."

"From the start I knew I wanted to use the log cabin quilt pattern, because it was a favorite of my wife, Linda Cogelow, who was a quilt maker all her adult life," Adams said.

"Barn Raising" by Ron Adams


Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"Barn Raising" by Ron Adams Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Villars also drew on her years as a quilter for her piece.

"I have been a quilter for several decades," Villars said, whose piece is titled "Colorful Peace."

"Color and contrast are my inspiration," she said.

"Colorful Peace" by Monica Villars



Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"Colorful Peace" by Monica Villars Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Atchison said she went through several designs before landing on one she felt had strong meaning to it. The blue star in the middle of her piece, called "Minnesota Hope," represents the North Star State; while the colors blue, green and yellow represent peace, unity, healing, renewal, health, hope, joy and happiness.

"It had been such a difficult year, but we made it through it," Atchison said. "I wanted the design to be luminous, representing yet in these difficult times we still shine."

"Minnesota Hope" by LeAnn Atchinson


Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"Minnesota Hope" by LeAnn Atchinson Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Donahue said it was a bit of a challenge to create her piece, titled "In or Out." She described herself as a asymmetrical artist, so the traditional symmetrical design of a barn quilt was a bit different for her.

"I wanted to honor traditional barn quilt designs while honoring myself as an artist," Donahue said. "I also like to explore visual perception by creating a sense of depth using color, value and shape in paint."

"In or Out" by Pauline Donahue


Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"In or Out" by Pauline Donahue Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Olney also represented herself in the barn quilt she made. For years she worked as a professional basket maker and today she does intricate needlework. Her piece, "A Few of My Favorite Things," has both.

"A Few of My Favorite Things" by Janet Olney


Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"A Few of My Favorite Things" by Janet Olney Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Prosser's creation was very personal. Titled "Eagle's Wings," it is the illustration of the vision she carries of her father's final days and is named after the hymn that was played during his funeral service. The three large mountains represent Korsmo's three children and the stained-glass mosaic effect Prosser used is like the appearance of the windows at Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, where Korsmo sang for nearly 40 years. She said she was guided by her emotional response to saying a final goodbye to her dad.

"It was a reflective time to consider how lucky I was to have had such a creative father that shared his love of the arts with me," Prosser said.

"Eagle's Wings" by Joanna Korsmo Prosser


Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
"Eagle's Wings" by Joanna Korsmo Prosser Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Art at the Barn

While the Barn Theatre is probably best known as a stage for plays and musicals, those who run it also want it to be known as a facility for all arts. The barn quilts are just the latest example of that mission.

"Art is a large forum and it comes in many different ways," Lindquist said. "We need to make sure we display and promote all types of art."

Monica Villars talks about her barn quilt at the open house on Sept. 13. Contributed / Ron Adams
Monica Villars talks about her barn quilt at the open house on Sept. 13. Contributed / Ron Adams

All of the artists that took part in the creation of the quilts felt it was a special project and they enjoyed the opportunity to have their work hang in one of Willmar's premiere art venues.

"I volunteered at the Barn as a kid when it really was a barn," Donahue said. "It is nice to have an artwork of mine now hanging in at the Barn."

The project also let the artists connect with their own histories, the community and other artists.

"I was honored to be included among my father's artist friends for this project. I love knowing that my piece will keep company with his friend's creations in a space where he volunteered," Prosser said. "David Korsmo would have loved this project!"