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."