PONCHATOULA — In October 2010, Ann Boudreaux, her sister Deanie Wright and family friend Joycelyn James were traveling through the Carolinas when they happened upon the Western North Carolina Quilt Trail.
They were amazed that people were stopping all along the highway to take pictures of painted quilt blocks on wooden squares.
Even though they are called quilt trails, there are no actual quilts on a trail. A trail is a series of painted quilt squares on wooden boards mounted on houses, businesses and public buildings.
There are some 300 quilt trails in 27 different states. In places with established quilt trails, maps lead viewers from square to square.
In January, several months after she returned home to Ponchatoula, Boudreaux contacted Kim Zabbia, a retired teacher who taught art in local high schools for 33 years.
“She asked me, ‘Why doesn’t Louisiana have a quilt trail?’’’ Zabbia said.
By March, it did.
Quilt trails started about 10 years ago when a woman in Ohio painted a large quilt block in memory of her mother, a longtime quilter. She hung the block outside her barn.
“Neighbors up and down the highway decided to do the same thing,” Zabbia said.
People started designing and painting quilt blocks to commemorate events and people in their lives. Businesses had blocks designed to describe their services or recall their history in geometric shapes.
At Boudreaux’s urging, a group of artist friends who work together at Ponchatoula’s Art Station, an art school for adults, organized the Louisiana Northshore Quilt Trail Association to create Louisiana’s first quilt trail.
The project includes the parishes of Tangipahoa, St. Tammany, Livingston, St. Helena and Washington. All over the five-parish area, people are designing, painting and installing quilt blocks.
The blocks are painted on MDO board, a special treated plywood often used by sign painters. The boards are primed and then painted with exterior latex paint.
“Everything has to be weather-worthy for outdoors,” Zabbia said.
Joining the quilt trail begins with designing or having designed a quilt block.
“Generally the presentation to us must have an immediate understanding that the presentation is a quilt,” said Rosemary Ydarraga, chairwoman-elect of the association’s board of directors.
“You have to instantly read it as a quilt,” Zabbia said. “If you read it as something else, you’ve got something else.”
Anyone in the area can paint and display a quilt square, but to be on the quilt trail, the design must be registered with the association and a one-time fee of $50 paid.
The block cannot be a picture or a logo. There can be no words. All of the blocks must be squares at least 24 by 24 inches.
“All of the squares are original,” said Marie Carroll, a retired principal.
The squares can be installed on buildings, mounted in the ground or painted directly on structures.
So far, the association has 21 registered quilt blocks and another 20 under construction. Eventually there will be a map of the five parishes with directions to the different squares. The board hopes to set up walking trails as soon as there are enough quilt blocks.
Because the one-time fee to enter a quilt block on the trail will not sustain the project, the association is also getting corporate sponsors.
“Each block is a memory or tells a story,” said Margaret Varnado Bailey. “The stories behind these quilt squares are wonderful.”
Eventually the quilt trail map will feature the story behind each square.
The trail’s first square, “Classic Clay,” is at the Art Station. Zabbia designed it with four clay vases and four wooden bowls placed around a circle representing a potter’s wheel.
A square at the law office of Thomas B. Waterman features geometric symbols representing law books, gavels and the scales of justice.
Zabbia designed a square for Frances Chauvin, who is known for the pies she brings each Saturday to Baton Rouge’s Red Stick Farmers Market.
The square contains a pie crust that “holds the family together,” Bailey said. Surrounding it are geometric forms that represent Chauvin’s children with a missing piece of pie to represent her late husband, John.
“One of the reasons we think this project is important is that we can bring the private art of quilt-making to public viewing,” Zabbia said. “That art on someone’s bedspread will be available so that people can love the art of quilt-making as much as we do.”
The project is also a cooperative effort among artists, painters, craftsmen, construction workers and the corporate world.
“We’re painting them. Other people are painting them. Some people just design. Some just paint, and some just install,” Zabbia said.
Members of the nonprofit association see the quilt trail “as a big tourism boost,” a way to bring people to the community, Zabbia said.
“When we were vacationing in North Carolina, we went to a town to buy groceries, and we started seeing these quilts,” Boudreaux said. “We bought a map and started following the trail.”
They ended up spending three days on the quilt trail. All the while, the three women were spending money in the area.
“We ate in the restaurants. We shopped in the shops. We bought gas at the gas stations,” Boudreaux said.