Artists Barry Stebbing and Frank van Latum took the fateful plunge last July 3, setting up their easels next to a scenic lighthouse in Maine and putting the first brush strokes on the adventure they had dreamed about for years.
Ten months later, on a warm May afternoon at Baltimore's lush Sherwood Gardens -- 33 states into their "Paint the States" odyssey -- they knew they could paint anywhere, under any conditions, and were better artists for it.
"Nature is the best classroom, even if you have to paint wearing gloves against the cold or tie down your easels in the wind," says Barry, a 44-year-old Baltimore native and former high school art teacher. "In Wisconsin, I had a horse come up and smear a painting with her nose."
Pledged to paint the 48 contiguous states within a year, they've glimpsed America's soul with an intensity and perspective few have shared, immortalizing a Nebraska pig farm, sunflower fields in Minnesota, a Washington state apple orchard, the night lights of Las Vegas, a Texas oil rig.
And, along the way, they've been struck by the generosity of the American people and their almost childlike fascination with artists on the road, a combination that frequently led to free meals and lodging for the cash-strapped, color-splattered painters.
"We've only seen two other artists painting outdoors the entire trip," says Frank, a 31-year-old Netherlands-born painter who has lived in the United States since 1987. "It's just not a tradition here like in Europe."
Now back on the road after wintering for three months in the Florida Keys, the duo -- accompanied by Barry's photographer wife, Saundra Tkacs Stebbing -- hope to complete the remaining states by early September with a painting of the Statue of Liberty.
Their final harvest is expected to include nearly 300 oil paintings, several hundred watercolors, pastels and pen-and-inks, plus daily journals detailing every nuance of the trip and the wealth of color slides Saundra has taken during the journey.
The travelers will have put some 40,000 miles on their 1979 Ford van, Hannibal, the "tremendous animal of power" whose stubborn personality and penchant for breaking down at unexpectedly spectacular sites have made it a major force in the "Paint the States" trip.
"We'll make it," says Barry. "Remember, Van Gogh did 800 artworks in the last three years of his life."
And we know how smoothly that went.
"I know that nothing has ever been done like this before. Okay someone may have painted the United States, but did they do it in oils? And if someone has painted this country in oils, did they do three paintings of each state? And if someone has painted three oils of each state, was it accomplished by an American and a European doing the same scene, side-by-side?" -- Entry in Barry's journal, July 19, 1990
The idea for "Paint the States" began taking shape in Italy in the summer of 1986, when Barry Stebbing -- a Maryland Institute of Art graduate and teacher at Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Md. -- met Frank van Latum, who at the time was creating watercolor landscapes under the sun.
An accomplished studio artist with oils and pastels, Barry was intrigued by the Dutchman's ease at working outdoors, and Frank was eager to experiment with the medium of oil painting.
"We painted together in the fields, working on the same subject from slightly different angles, each with our own way of seeing," says Frank. "He said it would be fantastic to paint this way every day, and both of us were crazy enough to take it serious."
Both work in the impressionist style, eschewing realism and detail for mood and color and space, imparting emotion and feeling to their art rather than intellectual distance.
But the aggressive, brooding Barry Stebbing paints sitting down, sticking the handles of his wet brushes into the earth as he intently creates. More of a fundamentalist, he carefully draws in his subject matter on canvas before beginning to paint, and his art exhibits thicker paint strokes and a darker use of color.
The blond, blue-eyed Frank -- also a poet and drama teacher -- stands as he paints, grasping all of his brushes in one hand and constantly pacing back from the easel to view his progress. There's a transparency to his work, with the white canvas serving as the light source for the bright colors he applies layer by layer.
"Painting is a discipline of learning to let the unexpected happen, to let colors live and paint create its own life," he says. "When I paint, I paint. I hardly think. When I just feel the mood, it comes natural, and sometimes magic happens."
In late 1987, he left behind a budding professional career and a serious romance in Paris to visit his new friend in Maryland. Barry quit his teaching job in 1989, and the two joined up in Key West to plan and raise money for "Paint the States."
Like generations of single-minded artists before him, Barry has agonized about the sacrifices made for art, including the end of his first marriage and loss of regular contact with his son, 11, and daughter, 13, who live with their mother in Ocean City.
"You put your whole life on the line, we're out there on a limb, especially me," he says. "Forty-four-years-old, leaving a good job of teaching behind and living more or less like a vagabond for a year."
"But the bottom line was our inner drive to break the barriers, come face to face with ourselves as artists, draw deep from within on our reserves, and see at the culmination of this journey exactly what we are as artists."
In Florida, they slowly built a nest egg by working in a hotel restaurant and starting a souvenir business called CoCo to GoGo, which had them laboriously painting designs on 1,400 coconuts and selling them to tourists and gift shops.
They outfitted Hannibal with a rebuilt motor, a new blue paint job, "Paint the States" logos on its sides, and an intricately designed interior of wooden shelves, platforms and cubbyholes to hold the paraphernalia of artists on the road.
And, in early July 1990, they arrived at Nubbles Point Lighthouse in York, Maine, where a puzzled native politely listened to their exuberant, ambitious plans to paint three oils each in all the states but Alaska and Hawaii within 12 months.
"He asked, 'How many have you done so far?' I said, 'Well, this is the first one,' " laughs Barry. "He just sort of snorted and walked away, shaking his head."
No one had done it before because, from an artist's perspective, it was fiendishly challenging. Oil painting is a difficult medium under the best of conditions. Out in the open, subject to the whims of weather and constantly changing light, it can be exasperating and sometimes impossible.
"So, here we are, not painting the states in a practical manner, like watercolors, but in oils!" Barry writes in his journal. "We may as well sculpt the USA!"
Oils dry slowly, so Hannibal's rooftop carrier was rigged with a series of hinged wooden racks that permitted dozens of paintings to dry safely and compactly as the van traveled the back roads from scenic site to scenic site.
Safely, that is, until Barry's favorite work -- a Monet-like interpretation of a Maine lily pond -- blew from the rack near Glacier National Park in Montana, devastating the artist until he finally decided to re-create the scene from memory.
"It was a heartbreak," he says. "We have to work so quickly that no painting is ever finished on site. The icing on the cake always has to wait. But I had put in 40 hours on the lily pond and it was nearly done."
They had originally hoped to paint six to seven hours a day, but "three to four hours was more realistic," as the rigors of traveling in the van, finding "precious" sites in each state and coping with the elements took their toll, Frank says.
At Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, wind gusts of up to 50 miles an hour repeatedly interrupted their painting, even though the easels were tethered and staked down with tent equipment.
In Page, Okla., Hannibal slid off a sleet-slickened mountain road into a ditch, and -- after rescue by a smiling road crew who said they had "seen worse" -- the artists retreated to a tiny motel cottage and painted the frigid landscape by looking out the bathroom window.
Winter also tested them in Yellowstone National Park, in northwest Wyoming, where they painted bundled up in parkas, gloves, wool hats, scarves and long underwear. Frank did a watercolor that still carries the signature of its chilly birth: The paint froze as soon as he applied it, creating a ragged appearance that startles the eye.
And in Sprague, Neb., they settled down to paint a pleasingly foul pigpen. "Every once in a while a pig fresh from the mud pond would come over and shake his ham hocks and mud would splatter all over my painting," says Barry.
"So far, I've had a horse rub his nose through my painting and hogs in Nebraska sling mud at my work," he says. "I hope the critics are a little more human."
But there were days when everything went right. In Idaho City on Oct. 1 -- a gorgeous, long day when the energy was there and the inspiration, too -- they worked for 10 hours and created two paintings each, including rare night landscapes.
Barry lyrically recalls that magic evening, with "the light from a church on a distant hilltop, the street lights dappling yellow light through misty mauves and deep blues, edges of buildings creeping in, and a silver moon manifesting itself through the haze."
And there was a moment of unexpected pleasure in mid-August, in the town of Bimiji, Minn. All their works had been tenderly unloaded from atop Hannibal and spread out for a newspaper reporter on the floor of his home.
It was the first time they had viewed the paintings anywhere but out-of-doors.
"With the new light, our work exploded," says Frank. "Created in the sunlight, in competition with the sun, the colors were vibrant and overwhelming when we took them inside."
"Buffaloes still travel through my dreams." -- Entry in Frank's journal, Aug. 26, 1990.
For a European, America was a revelation.
"I can't get used to the incredible feeling of space," says Frank. "The landscape is astonishing sometimes, hour after hour the countryside rolls by with long stretches of fields, woods or swamps."
The travelers avoided motels and commercial campgrounds whenever they could. They preferred national and state parks or just quiet spots beside the road, sleeping in the van or pitching their tents in warm weather.
Some of the trip's lighter moments were provided by wildlife at those sites. A skunk got into Hannibal on their very first night of camping. A squirrel nicknamed Sonja playfully bombarded the van with pine cones.
In "buffalo country" -- Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota -- Frank "didn't sleep so well in my little tent" because of worries about the huge animals rubbing against his shelter in the night. The first moose he had ever seen ran along a highway in northwest Montana: "an awkward-looking animal, a cross between horse, rabbit, goat, deer and whatever you can imagine."
Barry was pestered by the Maine mosquitoes, lambasting them as "lethal and, unlike their cousins down south, they don't blow away with a strong wind or run for cover when the temperature drops. Maine mosquitoes are stronger, built like mini-tanks."
And Saundra -- a New Jersey native and longtime Key West resident who had never camped before -- remembers answering nature's call one night in a patch of bushes and hearing "a rustling. Next morning, I found out that black bears come around for the huckleberry season."
The rigors of life on the road were something they tolerated, and at times welcomed. But a large chunk of their bare-bones budget of $207 a week was eaten up by steadily rising gasoline prices and frequent repairs to the testy Hannibal, who guzzled a gallon in eight miles.
"Hannibal is a strange breed," Barry says. "You have to be aware of her temperament and can't try to control her. Let her go gracefully at her own pace, like an aging elephant, and you're able to enjoy a comfortable ride. But if you kick spurs into her side, pushing her and forcing her to sweat and pant, then she becomes uncontrollable."
Their daily diet featured oatmeal for breakfast, bread and sardines for lunch, vegetables and rice for dinner. They once traded a painting for a steak dinner, and regularly augmented their staples with grocery store bargains and inexpensive regional delicacies like Washington apples and Montana huckleberries.
Barry gloated in his Oct. 10 entry about a meal of "apples; slices of day-old pumpernickel bread; discounted cheese from Safeway that only had a semblance of mold on it and easily scraped away; 1cantaloupe, 2a pound bananas; 2grapefruit; raisins, nuts, and a 6can of kipper snacks from K-mart. That's $2.08 for three people, and believe me, one of the best lunches money can buy."
But "all work would instantly stop" when a generous offer of food or lodging came along. "Fortunately," he says, "we were a clean and balanced triumvirate with a little European flavor, a little intellect and a little graciousness."
Both men credit Saundra with the hospitality they received during "Paint the States." They had only limited time for onlookers, often wearing headphones and listening to music -- Barry preferred classical, Frank liked rock -- to avoid distracting questions as they painted.
But Saundra enjoyed the company, after taking photographs and reading and tending to two temperamental artists. "I've spent a lot of time talking to people who come up," she says.
"They all have a story, they open up. It's fascinating."
On the Blackfeet Reservation near Glacier National Park in Montana, the travelers stayed overnight in a tepee as the guests of Tiny Man, an Indian who stood 6 1/2 feet and weighed 180 pounds.
In Washburn, Wis., they stopped by a scenic farm and asked if they could paint the barn. "The farmer looked somewhat strange at us and said he just had two new coats put on," says Frank.
The family soon opened its arms, and the visit stretched into four days as the guests dabbled in fence mending, milking cows and harvesting. They departed with an invitation to return and use an empty barn as a studio to put the icing on their unfinished paintings.
And they took Idaho City, Idaho, by storm, attracting crowds of onlookers and presenting a slide show of their trip at the local elementary school. It ended with Kate Smith's loud, patriotic recording of "God Bless America."
"We started to see yellow ribbons," says Frank. "Just a few in the beginning, then more and more" as Jan. 15 and the threat of war in the Persian Gulf approached. "By the time we got south near year's end, it was like the whole country was tied in yellow ribbons."
Ironically, the hospitality they encountered throughout the United States was a mixed blessing for the artists, who always welcomed the respite but soon yearned for their strict routine.
"We go along with so much discipline and become so pure in our isolation and on our budget and then whammo! We eat more than we have to eat, talk more than we have to talk," Barry says. "There goes our structure. We needed the road to feed our creativity."
And the road transported them to the most spectacular landscapes in North America, as they traveled "like the old settlers avoiding the cold winters and hoping that beyond the horizon there would be a treasure," says Frank. "Well, we found many more treasures than we expected."
He marveled at the beauty of Arches National Park in Utah and Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, where his favorite painting emerged. The Pacific coast was "unspoiled and overpowering, waves, wind and morning mist on green yellow hills."
Barry mentions the lily pond in Maine, the dogwoods and waterfalls of South Carolina and Virginia, the endless green of New England, where, "In the evening, the light seems to go from white to yellow to orange to pink to soft pastels."
In some of the smaller states, like Maryland, the artists did only two paintings. Besides Sherwood Gardens in Baltimore -- ablaze with spring color when they painted it -- they captured "a beautiful old barn" on the Parker farm near Smithsburg, Washington County. "Maryland is the best-kept state so far, the most-cared-for and groomed," says Frank.
But there were times during the trip when nothing seemed worth painting. In Kansas, Barry writes in his journal, "miles and miles go by. Nothing passes by our windows as we search. It is flat, empty and lonesome, void of stimulating energy."
They always found their treasure, however, and Kansas lives in their collection through paintings of a golden cornfield.
"Each state is like a good red wine: It needs time to breathe for a while," Barry says. "You don't simply go in and have these great revelations. It takes time for their personalities and charm to unravel."
"At one point in my life, and it was a rather long and difficult period, I dreaded being an artist, a painter, fearing the isolation and uncertainty. Now, I know beyond all doubt that this is my calling." -- Entry in Barry's journal, Aug. 2, 1990
If "Paint the States" were merely an adventure of beautiful scenery, camping high jinks and unexpected dinners with farm families, then anyone could have undertaken it.
But it's about creating art, under extreme conditions of time and environment, in close quarters that constantly strained the friendship of the two painters and forced them to compromise and grow.
"If it was not for painting, this trip would have been impossible," Frank says. "We are both hardheaded, self-convinced, egocentric and deadly honest. Without that time behind the easels, you have wolves. After our painting fix, you have lambs."
Saundra often served as a mediator between the self-described "bullfighters," softening their edges and providing emotional stability when the dark clouds descended on Barry and Frank. But the sparks between them spawned a fascinating competition that reveals itself in agonizing journal entries about artistic failures and successes, day by day, as they were tested against themselves and each other.
"Sometimes, it seems as if Frank is more painterly. Or his colors stretch out more. Other times, my compositions seem stronger or the finished painting stands more on solid ground," writes Barry. "But I am never satisfied with my works. Upon completion, I am dead to them: It has been too much, too fast; my senses only seem to be alive to criticism."
The creative process was compressed, a sort of reckless careening along on pure feeling and instinct that produced exhilarating highs if a painting worked or excruciating lows if it started badly and never came to life.
There was no going back. Maybe it could be saved later, in the comfort of the studio or the cozy wooden barn in Wisconsin. But not on the road, where another painting at another site awaited their touch, another opportunity to create the masterpiece that will hang above the mantel.
And that ruthless pace changed both of them. "As time passes we are becoming more efficient, more lean, more in tune with our surroundings," says Barry. "We're getting real fast, the work is having more and more conviction. The brushstrokes, the colors! The seeing!"
Like a married couple growing more alike through the years, Barry began lightening up his palette and using bigger brushes, while Frank found himself experimenting with smaller brushes and darker colors.
"In personality, Frank and I are more like van Gogh and Gauguin than van Gogh and Gauguin," Barry said. "He's van Gogh, I'm Gauguin. Van Gogh had a tendency to lean more on Gauguin. Gauguin was ruthless and adamant and set in his ways."
Frank smiles at the comparison. "Barry's a romantic about the lifestyle, the interplay. But we're not judging our art against theirs. I will never be a Rembrandt, closer to van Gogh, perhaps. Surely," he says, "I'm a van Latum."
The two artists hope that "Paint the States" will not end in obscurity in September. They have resisted the temptation to sell their art along the way, keeping the body of works together for a possible gallery show.
They have abundant material for a book, and there are plans to take the slide show around the country, including Saundra's studies of the scarecrows she encountered in fields and gardens. Hawaii and Alaska may be added to the itinerary, if a sponsor can be found.
Frank plans to return to the Netherlands this fall, then travel and paint in Italy and France. "Painting is my way of feeling," he says. "I want the journey to go on forever."
And Barry has no doubts about his future. "It doesn't take that much to be an artist, simply most of your waking hours, money, and someone to take care of you, like a little baby," he says with a laugh.
"But it's said you should paint and paint and paint until you're 60, then paint your masterpiece. I just want to paint for the rest of my life."
LUTHER YOUNG is The Sun's science writer.