Joggers, bikers and pedestrians will soon have a good reason not to hustle when they pass through a popular yet graffiti-covered tunnel that connects the woods on either side of busy Oakland Mills Road in Columbia.
The concrete walls of the 75-foot-long underpass, built in 1974, are the unlikely canvas of Mariama Barr-Dallas, an Oakland Mills High School student who was selected to paint the pair of murals to mask graffiti there and beautify Owen Brown.
"I've always liked drawing, but I only recently discovered that painting is also something I can do," the 17-year-old senior said of the 8-foot-high panels depicting nature scenes and wildlife, executed in exterior house paint colors she mixes herself.
The mural is part of a county-run experiment to see if graffiti artists will respect another artist's work and resist the impulse to deface it with impromptu aerosol-spray designs.
"We're excited about the dual purpose of this project," said Jenny DeArmey, park operations superintendent with the county's recreation and parks department, which is overseeing Barr-Dallas' volunteer work.
"Outside art is a feel-good thing," she said, "and we're hoping that by adding this mural, we can balance out the graffiti problem we've had for all 12 of my years here and probably before that."
The idea for the mural originated with the high school's Environmental Club, whose members want to invest in a long-lasting enhancement to the neighborhood, said DeArmey, who has been working with them on other community projects.
A contest was held last spring and the student with an artistic flair and an aptitude for science was selected as the winner.
Barr-Dallas began painting in August with $200 in supplies provided by DeArmey's office. With work suspended during one of the area's coldest winters on record, tunnel users have been teased for months by the painted tendrils twirling around the entrance and exit to the underpass, as well as the promise of penciled-in images not yet fully realized.
But last week's 75-degree weather ignited spring fever and sparked a renewed determination in the artist to pick up where she left off.
"When I'm painting, so many people stop to watch and say nice things," Barr-Dallas said of the people who frequent the mile-long paved pathway. One woman called her artwork "inspiring" and even fetched her kids so they could all take a closer look, she recalled.
The teen artist's mother, Denee Barr, is an artist herself, and understands her daughter's innate talent.
"Mariama was exposed to all kinds of art at a very young age, since I was always taking her to galleries in D.C., London and everywhere," said Barr, who is a fine-arts photographer, multimedia artist and vocalist. "She has a good eye," she said of her daughter's artistic sensibilities.
The student muralist's art teacher at Oakland Mills enthusiastically agreed.
"Mariama is so spatially intelligent and not at all daunted by the scope of that project," said Heather Leatherman, who has taught her for three years.
"She's one of those dedicated and quiet students who's just intrinsically talented," she said. "And I know that whatever she does, she'll always continue to paint."
While Barr-Dallas works from sketches she submitted for the contest, she doesn't avail herself of any tricks of the trade, such as applying a grid over the expansive space to keep the mural's widely spaced elements in proper scale.
"I just eyeball it and it all stays in proportion," she said matter-of-factly.
Waterfalls, swans and deer are among the hints of what's to come this spring and summer. Barr-Dallas has also reserved a blank panel for her piece de resistance — a copy of Italian renaissance artist Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus."
"She's really talented, and I'm so glad she's doing this," Leatherman said, confident that her student can pay suitable homage to such a revered work of 15th-century art.
"Yet street art is a whole movement, too," she said of the spray-paint designs on buildings and bridges that most regard as defacement of public property. "Graffiti artists will respect her work, especially since she's a teenager."
DeArmey echoed the viewpoint that graffiti is considered urban art and not vandalism by those who create it as well as some who critique it.
"Graffiti is their art," she said. "It's all in the perception."
Nonetheless, residents complain when graffiti appears, DeArmey said. A county task force convened two years ago to brainstorm ways to battle graffiti discovered through online research that Philadelphia officials had success by commissioning works of public art, she said.
Last summer, murals in three other locations sprang up as part of the countywide effort.
They appear on the outdoor storage room and restrooms at the East Columbia Library, a picnic pavilion and restrooms behind Deep Run Elementary School at Waterloo Park, and on a wall at the Centennial Park boat dock, said Holly Harden, teen programs manager for recreation and parks. All were designed and created by campers in the Teen Remix summer program, she said.
"The original point of all this was to stop graffiti, but the kids have enjoyed it, too," Harden said.
At the East Columbia site, campers adopted a theme of popular icons of Maryland and painted a raven, crab and the University of Maryland "M," among other symbols. So far, the murals have not been defaced, Harden said.
DeArmey said if the commissioned works of art continue to curb graffiti, then the county will expand the program and include more teen artists like Barr-Dallas.
Despite her gifts, the muralist views drawing and painting simply as hobbies and is waiting to see if she can add Princeton University to the list of colleges where she has been accepted to study computer science this fall.
She has already been accepted to the University of Maryland and UMBC, which admitted her to its competitive Meyerhoff Scholars Program for students who excel in science, technology, engineering and math.
"I'm not always looking to get something out of painting," Barr-Dallas said. "But when I actually finish this and I can stand back and look at it, I'll feel like I really accomplished something."