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.)