MOUNT SAVAGE ——Drive west on Mile Lane in Allegany County, then crest the ridge in the road, and all of a sudden, the big barn on Leaning Pine Farm bursts out of the surrounding countryside like a display of fireworks.
Eight-sided stars wheel exuberantly against the weathered boards in hues reflecting the natural surroundings: water blue and grass green, sunset orange and the brown of turned furrows.
Passing motorists honk or slow down. A few get out to chat with artist Bill Dunlap, who is about a third of the way through a project to paint a large-scale mural on at least one barn in each of the state's 23 counties.
But the seven barns Dunlap has completed under the auspices of the University of Maryland do more than just give passers-by a reason to smile. Though it might not be immediately apparent to strangers, Dunlap hasn't just painted a picture; he has also painted a story.
"I show in various galleries in New York, and I have pieces that are in the permanent collections of museums," says the 45-year-old Dunlap, who splits his time between the Big Apple and his native Cumberland.
"But these barns have a mass appeal that I've never experienced before. There have been reports about the murals in The Washington Post and on National Public Radio, on local television and on the Armed Services Radio Network. I can throw paint around all year without having this kind of impact."
Actually, each mural tells not just one story, but several. There's a story about art escaping the confines of the galleries and museums, and a second about the beauty of the Maryland countryside. A third talks about the patch of Maryland acreage on which each farm stands, and the men and women who live there.
The barns also reveal a good deal about the artist himself — a man who lost his father at age 10, spent his childhood wandering the forests of Western Maryland, battled alcoholism and taught himself to create pictures that ask questions about his world.
"I've probably worked with 750 artists over the past 12 years, and there's nobody like Bill," says John Shipman, director of the University of Maryland Art Gallery, who hired Dunlap to paint the barns.
"Bill has a strong personal knowledge of what it means to be human, and it translates into his work," Shipman says. "There's a vacancy about a lot of contemporary art, so people dismiss it because they find it irrelevant. Bill's work can be challenging. But he understands very well how what he creates fits into people's lives."
Shipman came up with the idea for the project, has secured donations of materials — including all the paint — and is slowly raising the roughly $90,000 to pay Dunlap to create murals on 24 barns. The first design was painted in 2010, and Shipman hopes the last will be completed next year.
The project was inspired by The Barnstormers, a New York-based collective of graffiti artists. In 1999, 25 members converged overnight on a small North Carolina town and spray-painted barns, tractor-trailers and farm equipment.
Instead of being outraged, the residents of Cameron, N.C., were delighted. They could tell right away that what had taken place in their town wasn't vandalism, but art.
"Artwork is necessary for humans," Shipman says. "You have to see it and be around it. It has something to teach us. But many people don't care to visit galleries. So I decided to bring the art to them."
None of Dunlap's murals are visible from major highways. Each is intentionally tucked away off sparsely traveled country roads. Gene Paul, who owns Cedar Rock/Leaning Pine Farm, estimates that perhaps 30 cars pass his place each day.
"Maryland has some of the most beautiful countryside in the nation, and it's varied, from the Eastern Shore to the mountains," says Shipman, who spent boyhood summers on a Cecil County farm.
"Half of the artwork is the drive there. We're trying to reach the suburbanites who might go to galleries but seldom venture down backcountry roads. We're creating a slower, quieter interaction so that Bill's art can sink in a little more. We want people to look at dust motes floating in the sun."
Each mural also incorporates a poem. Past selections have ranged from the prison verse of Washington-area poet R. Dwayne Betts to snatches from John Milton's "Paradise Lost."
"I combine poetry in my paintings because they're both marginalized art forms," Dunlap says. "The only people who read poetry today are those who are already fans — just like the people who look at contemporary art."
For the barn at Leaning Pine Farm, Dunlap chose a poem by Western Maryland writer Nina Forsythe, who describes farmers as "angel[s] of the machinery of the earth."
Forsythe's piece is an homage to people like Wilbert Paul, who bought Leaning Pine Farm in 1940, and his son, Jim Paul, who lived his entire life on the property, suffered his first heart attack in the lower field and died in December 2008 at age 61.
Gene Paul, the retired biology teacher who farms the place now, says he misses his big brother every time he climbs on a tractor.
"I was going to have Jim teach me how to operate the farm," he says. "There are a lot of things I never learned how to do. Every time I had a question, I just turned around and asked, 'Hey, Jim, what do I do now?' "
Six months after Jim Paul's death, the big barn burned to the ground. Insurance paid to install a new roof and support beams, but the cost to rebuild the rest was prohibitive. But one morning, neighbors showed up carrying hammers and saws. Over the next few weeks, they finished the barn themselves.
"Some people put in hours and hours of work," Gene Paul says, marveling at the outpouring of support. "Other people donated money."
So when Amanda Paul, Jim's daughter and the farm's co-owner, proposed that Dunlap paint a mural on one side of the rebuilt barn, her uncle was receptive.
"Our rural part of America is vital, and we're letting it slip away," Gene Paul says. "Anything that draws attention to it is a plus."
Dunlap takes the time to get to know the owners of the barns he paints, and details of their lives seep into his designs. For the Leaning Pine barn, he lets the weathered wood of the barn walls erected by Paul's neighbors show through his colorful stars.
"I think I've bonded with Gene because he reminds me of my father," Dunlap says. "They're both the same hardworking, hunting-and-fishing type of guys."
Dunlap's father died in a motorcycle crash when his son was 10.
"It's the most horrible tragedy I've experienced," Dunlap says.
"I've erased everything about that day from my memory. For years I had a dream that my father was walking just ahead of me and across the road. I thought that if I ran hard enough, I could catch up."
Dunlap's mother had to work around the clock to pay the bills, so the boy spent his free time in the woods, alone except for woodchucks, deer and beaver.
"People were afraid for my mental health as a kid," he says, "but I loved the solitude. I lived in my mind."
The habits of a heightened observation and imagination forged during those years created an artist. But Dunlap's relatives were right to worry about the teen.
"I was an alcoholic by the time I was 15 years old," he says, "and I didn't stop drinking until I was 40. One day, I quit cold-turkey. I woke up and realized I was tired of embarrassing myself. I was allowing myself to be controlled by the drug."
Even when Dunlap's drinking was at its heaviest, it didn't destroy his curiosity.
After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1988, he moved to Japan for a year and taught English. He and his wife, Nancy Giunta, a social worker, then relocated to San Francisco so she could pursue a doctorate.
Dunlap had been drawing cartoon characters since he was a kid, and in the 1990s, he became a successful graphic artist for the Web. (He helped design the site for Travelocity, the online travel agency.)
When the dot-com bubble burst, the couple moved back to the East Coast. For the past 10 years, he's been working full time as an artist.
"Creativity is the one thing that doesn't spook me," he says. "All I can do is try to find my voice in the void."
Poem at Leaning Pine Farm
Below is the untitled poem by Nina Forsythe that can be found on the side of Leaning Pine Farm:
The farmer is like an angel of the machinery of the earth -— its
muscle and gears, its pumps and balances — his feet deep in granite
rock beds, his head turned to the sun.
Cross the border and explore the topography of his country, the hidden
water table, the trade routes plied across the corrugated soil. No
Claim to fame: He's painting a mural on one barn in every county in Maryland
Residence: Cumberland and New York City
Education: University of Maryland, 1988, bachelor's degree in English; San Francisco State University, 2000, master's degree in design; Allegany College of Maryland, 2008, associate's degree in forestry.
Personal: Married to social worker Nancy Giunta
The Art of Fire, 7901 Hawkins Creamery Road, Gaithersburg, Montgomery County
Rumbleway Farm, 592 McCauley Road, Conowingo, Cecil County
Crow Farm and Vineyard, 12441 Vansants Corner Road, Kennedyville, Kent County
Lucy School, 9117 Frostown Road, Middletown, Frederick County
Kenny Braitman and Ann Bristow Farm, 92 Carey Run Road, Frostburg, Garrett County
Infinity Recycling Inc., 300 Old McGinnes Farm Lane, Chestertown, Kent County
Leaning Pine Farm, 14611 Mile Lane, N.W., Mount Savage, Allegany County