Corey Paradise and Cullen Schneider spend a few minutes discussing this year's barn mural themes. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Drivers often slow down as they pass Merz Barn Farm along Route 15 in Orland. Sure, there’s a pretty sharp curve in the road, but for the past dozen years motorists have had another reason to slow down — giant, eye-catching murals painted on the farm’s barn.

The barn was there when Cullen Schneider and Corey Paradise bought the farm in 2009. Though they had no plans to ever house livestock there, the outside seemed to beg for some attention and creativity.

“I don’t know, it just sort of hit us,” Paradise said. “It was like, ‘We just bought a house, wouldn’t it be neat to paint a mural?’”

Schneider had also just purchased Fairwinds Florist in Blue Hill and wanted to do something the public could enjoy. That’s what sparked the annual mural project.

“We felt like we had this rural life but we were also interested in the idea of art in public places,” Schneider said. “You don’t really see a lot of murals in rural, public spaces.”

This year’s mural on Cullen Schneider and Corey Paradise’s Orland barn recognizes the challenges and triumphs of 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Cullen Schneider

So the couple got together with their friends Sarah and Eric Moon of Bangor and things just took off from there.

“We all have an arts background,” Sarah Moon said. “We really liked the idea of the barn mural project becoming an art retreat weekend.”

Sarah Moon teaches art, Paradise is a tattoo artist, Schneider is a photographer and Eric Moon is a marketing graphic designer.

That first year the quartet settled on a Big Bang theory theme, complete with swirling molecules, galaxies, planets and a giant atom that split in half when the barn doors slid open.

Over the years other themes have included a colorful dragon, a coastal buoy scene, dancing cranes and a giant maple leaf.

One year farm dog Lili — who has been on hand for every mural project — was featured in “Lili’s World,” a play on the Andrew Wyeth painting, “Christina’s World.”

Cullen Schneider spends a few moments with farm dog Lili in front of this year’s barn mural. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

The themes are developed over the course of several group meetings and discussions. After that, it’s off to the local hardware store where Paradise said they head straight to the “mis-mixed shelf” to grab whatever colors happen to be available at a reduced price.

The 2020 mural plans were shaped by the global pandemic along with the politics and civil unrest in this country. Titled “Hindsight/Foresight,” the mural depicts a group of graduates in black caps and gowns against a white background. One holds a rolled up diploma while another has his fist raised in the air. Over their heads float colorful renditions of the COVID-19 virus.

Schneider said they try to bring in any graduates in their families on the theme-selection process each year. In 2020, there was both a college and high school graduate.

“There was a lot going on and graduations canceled,” Sarah Moon said. “Even the date we usually paint was disrupted.”

Friends and family gather to work on a past mural on Merz Barn Farm in Orland. Credit: Courtesy of Cullen Schneider

In all previous years the mural was painted on or near the summer solstice, but like so many plans this past summer, the annual project was rescheduled due to Maine’s COVID-19 stay at home orders and social distancing protocols.

All the graduates in the 2020 mural are wearing masks and those masks, according to Sarah Moon, is where participants included their individual creativity in design and message.

Some masks are colorful patterns, one is an American flag and another includes the Black Lives Matter initials.

It typically takes three days to paint the murals and once complete, reactions from those who see it are often swift and — for the most part — positive.

“Art is such a needed aspect in our lives,” Sarah Moon said. “Once you put your art out there it’s there for people to interpret and get from it what they need.”

The 2020 mural has gotten more attention than past designs, according to Schneider.

Farm dog Lili had her own portrait as part of a past barn mural. Credit: Courtesy of Cullen Schneider

“People we talk to seem to be interpreting it very differently,” she said. “They seem to bring all that they are carrying from 2020 with them in their interpretations.”

This is the time of year the four friends start to brainstorm about the coming summer’s theme. Each has an idea in mind and there will be plenty of discussion, laughter and banter before a final decision is made and the trip to the mis-mixed paint shelf at the hardware store.

“Sometimes we do evolve away from the original idea,” Sarah Moon said. “But the cool part is seeing the melding of all of the ideas into one vision.”

She added that it’s important that final vision is shared and enjoyed, given it will be around for some time.

“We are very sensitive to how it will look,” Sarah Moon said. “Corey and Cullen have to look at this for a whole year.”

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.