Newcomers to Synod School’s “Watercolor Quilting” class might leave with a sense of commotion, a sense of continuous movement surrounding snippets of thoughtfulness, pensive observation and the whir of sewing machines.

Susan Barnes, the artist in residence at this year’s school, led it all, providing instruction, looking over shoulders and helping the quilting enthusiasts in her class find the right piece of cloth for the fabric picture each student created.

Several bright and intense quilts created by Barnes dressed up the classroom. Dozens of boxes filled with 2-by-2 inch, color-coordinated fabric squares covered tables on one side of the room – the only tables not in use by students, who each worked on individual 13-by-13 inch fabric pictures.

Barnes’ class was one of more than 60 classes at Synod School 2012, the midsummer educational ministry of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies that this summer drew more than 660 to Buena Vista University here for the weeklong event.

How does Barnes get the fabric squares? “I cut them,” she said, and when someone commented about the tedium, she added, “I can turn on NPR and cut, and I have a basement that no one else needs to go into.”

While someone might question the excitement involved in cutting fabric squares, Barnes’ search for the right piece of fabric takes on aspects of traveling highways and back roads to find bits and pieces of fabric to play a bit role in a broader picture.

“I find it everywhere,” she said, and some squares come from friends. “People know I need 2-inch squares.”

Mary Phillips working on a quilt

Mary Phillips of Springfield, Mo., creates a colorful heart in her 13-by-13 inch fabric art. —Duane Sweep

She talked about the search for distinct pieces of fabric. “I found an extra, extra, extra large smock full of [pictures of] children around the world at Goodwill for $2. And it’s hard to find boys, men, people of color, old people, people with disabilities and people with noses.”

Yes, people with noses.

Then, as she pointed to those fabric squares that are hard to find, she added, “So you can imagine how pleased I was when my former neighbor said, ‘I found this fabric in a store and I knew you would love it so here it is.’ And she sent me a quarter of a yard of it.”

Before a visitor to the class could get the idea that admirers of Barnes’ quilts must dwell in minutiae, she said, “Take your glasses off and then look.” Barnes took off her glasses, too, paused and said, “They’re like a painting.”

Barnes’ quilts have an impressionist quality, something like a Monet, and it’s only the close examination that shows the thoughtful selection of individual fabric pieces.

Barnes started quilting in 2001 after seeing a quilt by a watercolor artist. She started out thinking she might make a potholder. It’s become much more than that.

In 2006 she made three banners to celebrate women’s ordination anniversaries in the Presbyterian Church – 100 years as deacons, 75 years as elders and 50 years as clergy. More than 1,000 congregations contributed fabric squares in honor of their first women deacons and elders.  She has also made a quilt for the Peacemaking Offering poster.

For Barnes, pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Lone Tree, Iowa, each quilt tells a story ― a sermon in fabric. She described a quilt that shows the Feeding of the 5,000 and then told the story of another quilt with walking catfish that feeds on cancer. Barnes also pointed out the elements of the quilt that addresses singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, the theme for this year’s Synod School.

She showed the rivers of Babylon and the rusting chains of oppression in the water. She pointed to the various landscapes sewn into the quilt and described some of the features of individual quilt squares, including sign language. And she described how the Lord’s song flows through the land in the quilt design ― the five lines of the staff and two whole notes. On the treble clef, the two whole notes are G and D.

“Two whole notes together is very contemporary and cutting edge composition,” Barnes said, “which is not why I picked them. I picked them because I could fit them.”

Before coming to Iowa, Barnes served congregations in Oregon and Oklahoma. She and her husband, Mike Ferguson, have a son in college and a daughter in high school. Ferguson works for the Muscatine (Iowa) Journal and often writes for the Presbyterian News Service.

Barnes moved to another table to take a look at a developing story in fabric. She stood to the side, raising her left hand to tilt her glasses. “This is good, but you need to have more yellow.”

She looked closer. “I think this is confusing. … You might be able to put a house with a window in it and put people into it.”

To someone else she added, “We pass a lot of judgment on fabric here. … That’s how we’ve been talking all week.”

Then someone else came by and asked if she can look at another piece and she’s asked how she maintains the pace through more than two hours.

“This gives me energy,” she said. It could be the class; it could be quilting. It could be both.

Duane Sweep is the associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. From time to time he contributes articles to Presbyterian News Service.