I’ve wanted to say something about the two barns I painted on the Eastern Shore this past summer. First I’d like to say that I can’t believe I finished both of them in one week. Nervous energy can stimulate great stamina for work. Whether the work is good, I can’t say. But I do know I painted nearly non-stop, 12 to 14 hours a day for seven days straight. What made me nervous? Well, I was far from home and staying in the home of Ford and Marilee Schumann (owners of one of the barns I was painting), and though they were the kindest hosts I could hope for, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I’m funny that way, never wanting to intrude. I arrived in late August, and was determined to be finished in a week, in part because I had plans elsewhere the following week. I knew I was squeezing a lot of work into a short time, but I thought it was doable.
I started getting pretty nervous the first day of painting. The barn wall at Crow Farm is 60 ft long and about 20 ft tall. It has at least four different surfaces of wood and grooved, rusted tin siding. All of this needed to be primed white, and because of the ridged tin surface I could use a roller on only a small portion of the wall. This meant priming most of the wall with a small brush, hand-held for the lower parts and attached to an extension pole for the higher parts. I spent most of the first two days dunking my tiny brush into buckets of white primer and painting in the narrow grooves of the tin siding. Twice. I gave it all two coats.
With a few hours of daylight remaining on the second day, I left Crow Farm and went to the barn at Infinity Recycling. My plan was to paint three sides of the barn. That made for a good bit of painting, but the barn was not as tall as the barn at Crow Farm. What I painted at Infinity is probably about 40 ft long and 8 ft tall. The barn at Infinity is all wood, but the problem was that the wood was very old, very dry, and had never been painted. My first coat of white primer soaked into the wood entirely, leaving the wood a sort of dim gray color. At this point I was out of daylight and out of white primer.
The third morning I was out early trying to find white primer. I came with five gallons, and now I needed to buy five more. By the afternoon, I finished the priming, and then it was time to start on my quilt star pattern. I had sort of thought this through in my head, but as I stood in front of that 60ft by 20ft wall holding a pencil and a four-foot ruler, I realized I really had no idea how to pull this off.
I guess I just sort of wandered up to the wall and started making straight lines and diagonal lines with my pencil and ruler, now and then erasing bits with my little pink eraser. Trying to make straight lines over the ridges in the siding, and across the barn door and hinges, was not so easy, especially when I was 15 feet up a ladder. I had a fear that someone might be standing off in the distance watching me, and that they’d quickly realize I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually I saw that each star should be 14ft wide and 7ft tall. It was late in the day when I finished drawing the first star. I was able to put a small bit of paint on it, really just to satisfy myself that I was finally up to the painting part of the project. But with three days down, and only four to go I was getting nervous again.
The fourth day I worked non-stop from sun up to sun down. As I ran around drawing stars, moving ladders, pouring paint, cleaning my brush, I remember mumbling to myself things like: “What was I thinking? What was I thinking! This is ridiculous! Never again!” That total sense of pessimism kept me focused. On the fifth day, much to my surprise, I had painted all the stars and was working on the poem. I struggled a bit with how the poem should appear, but as the sun was setting and as the cows were coming across the field for dinner, I put on the finishing strokes. I was happy with the result, but it was dark, and I had to pack up and clean my brushes in the headlights of my truck.
So that left days six and seven for the barn at Infinity Recycling. Thus far I’d had no time to work there at all except for applying one coat of ineffective primer. Having only two full days to finish the job made me a bit nervous, but I was pretty confident I could do it. But what really made me worry was that while I was finishing up at Crow Farm, I realized I had terrible chills and was sweating constantly. And I couldn’t stop shaking all over, and my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. I thought maybe I was suffering from heat stroke, but it turned out that Judy Crow at Crow Farm wasn’t feeling so well, either. She said that maybe something blew in with the hurricane. Hurricane Irene, that is. I started this job about two days after it passed through with a wake of flooding and downed trees. I don’t know where my illness came from, but I was feeling worse by the minute.
That evening I had dinner with Ford and Marilee Schumann in their home. I didn’t tell them how terrible I was feeling. I didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. Marilee made delicious Indian food for dinner that night, but I could hardly eat a bite. The newest symptom to my illness was that any bit of food I ate required me to run almost immediately to the bathroom, and my chills were getting worse. Ford Schumann is a fine guitar player and folk singer. It turned out that this was the evening he asked me to break out my harmonicas and play along with his guitar and singing. At this point my whole body was shaking pretty much uncontrollably. Swaying to the music and holding my harmonica in front of my face must have hid my shaking, since no one said anything. Or maybe they were embarrassed by my inept harmonica playing, and decided to look away. Whatever the reason, I was able to slip away to bed after a few songs by telling Ford and Marilee I needed to get an early start on painting in the morning.
That night in bed I hallucinated, shook uncontrollably, and sweated so much that in the middle of the night I sneaked to the bathroom to get a large towel to wrap myself in. The sheets and blankets were soaking wet, and I hoped the towel might keep the moisture off me. In short time the towel was also soaked. I remember dreaming that night that I was being chased around London by Jack the Ripper. I’ve never been to London, but in my dream it was a very cold and damp place. In the morning I was somehow able to get out of the house early before Ford and Marilee were awake.
For the next 48 hours I lived pretty much on nothing but water and two bananas. And somehow I painted the barn at Infinity Recycling. By the time I made it back home I had lost about 20 pounds. A reporter from a local paper took a photo of me in front of the Infinity barn when I had finished painting it, and I’m amazed at how skinny my arms and legs look. I think I look like a cricket in that photo.
As for the actual painting of the barn, it was sort of on and off. I’d paint something big, step back to look at it, then change my mind, paint it out, and start over again. Now and then someone working at the recycling center would look at what I was doing and say something like, “Oh, so that’s what it’s gonna look like.” And I would quickly say, “Oh, no. Don’t look at that! That’s terrible. I’m going to paint that out and do something different.” Maybe they thought I was crazy. I was after all quite sick. I think I was in a pretty fragile emotional state.
I finished the painting on the end of the seventh day, a Sunday, a day when no one worked at the recycling center. It was just me and the two feral cats who live there. I worried about those cats all day and fed them any bits of cat food I could find in the office. How I lamented the cruel vicissitudes that life had thrown those little homeless cats. I suppose this was partly my fragile emotional state at work. Because of my illness I now and then took short naps on the seat in my truck, and I remember dreaming about cats. The final painting on the Infinity barn has lots of animals painted in a sort of fragile childlike way. I did it for the cats.
The day I finished painting the second barn I actually had enough time to attend a Labor Day and barn mural party at Crow Farm. I suppose I was a rather mysterious guest of honor that day. I was the artist who painted the barn, but I never spoke with anyone for more than five minutes because I was constantly running to the bathroom. The torments of Job were never so severe as my suffering. When the party was over, I enjoyed my final long night of gasping, sweating, and shaking in bed. I was out early in the morning after leaving a thank you note on the dining room table for Ford and Marilee. Everyone had been wonderful, I loved painting the barns, but I was so happy to be heading home to my own bed, food, and cats.
Of course, it was raining heavily the morning I left, and a few days earlier the window crank on the driver’s side door of my truck had broken. My window was down and wouldn’t go up. I tried taping it up, but that didn’t last long. I found a gas station on my way to the highway. I filled up the truck and bought some diarrhea medicine. I drove six hours home in heavy rain, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand trying to hold up the window, my teeth chattering and body shaking the whole way. That was some good diarrhea medicine, though. It really did the trick.
– Bill Dunlap
Press coverage for these murals can be found here, and here.
This project is generously supported in part by Target, Sunbelt Rental, and Sherwin-Williams.