BRISTOL, Tenn. — A Bristol barn perched on a grassy hill overlooking Interstate 81 is about to become the University of Tennessee's newest sign to the world, carrying a very simple message: We are everywhere.
The UT System has been quietly planning the "Everywhere You Look, UT" campaign for several years.
Remember the "See Rock City" signs that became so famous across the South? That's the idea with this campaign.
"I'd like to have them in each of our 95 counties by 2030," Tiffany Carpenter, the driving force behind the message and the system's vice president of communications and marketing, said, standing a few hundreds yards from the Bristol mural site.
The approximately 50-year-old barn on the 200-year-old Stone family farm near the I-81/Highway 11W exit is the fourth structure in the state that will bear the special UT logo.
Artist Troy Freeman pulled into town Thursday night. He'll trace out the nearly 3-foot letters on the wooden barn Friday and commence to painting Saturday.
By Monday, southbound motorists by the thousands will be able to see the mural off to the left, decked out in a specially chosen shade called UT Orange.
The Springfield, Ill., native has been to the Volunteer State before on jobs and vacations. Was he ever a fan of the university?
"I am now," he said Friday afternoon at the job site.
After the Bristol barn, he moves on next week to paint a 14-foot by 90-foot barn on state Route 348 in Mohawk, Tenn., in Greene County.
Campaign celebrates UT's reach
The first mural went up in Knoxville. You can see it today, on businessman and entrepreneur Randy Boyd's water tower on the Rail Salvage Building in the Old City near James White Parkway. After Boyd finished his campaign for governor in 2018, Carpenter asked the UT alum if he'd let her paint his tower.
Have at it, he said. The quicker the better.
Now president of the UT System, which consists of campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Martin, Boyd is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. He plans to be at the barn site Tuesday to show it off for the press along with land owner George Stone, a Bristol journalist.
UT campaign aims to put mural in all 95 TN counties
Carpenter said the point of the campaign isn't just to paint the state orange.
UT and its generations of graduates have had a profound effect on Tennessee, and not just on the system's four campuses. UT's influence is everywhere, she said.
Besides Boyd's tower, the other two murals currently up are on the side of the Van Vleet Cancer Center in Memphis and a huge grain bin in Sharon, Tenn., about 7 miles from the UT Martin campus.
Carpenter said she'd like to see 10 murals up in the state by the end of the year.
As word quietly has spread about the campaign, people in many counties have started to suggest high-profile sites.
"They're getting a little competitive," she said.
Anyone interested in joining the campaign can nominate a building in their hometown and also contribute money if they'd like by going to the project's website here.
Carpenter said a couple private donations have helped the effort; more aid would be welcomed.
By the way, for those folks who live in the Knoxville area: Carpenter said they still need nominations for places to put the mural in many area counties such as Blount, Sevier and Loudon.
If you want to show off the UT mural on the side of your structure, now's your chance.
Chasing the shade
A free spirit surely would love Freeman's life. He gets to drive around the country painting murals and signs.
"I have literally driven from coast to coast," he said Friday, dressed in his usual work clothes -- shorts and a T-shirt.
"Getting to see America is amazing."
And so is getting to see Tennessee, he said. He's been impressed at how lush everything is.
Freeman first will sketch out the design of the Bristol mural in chalk on the side of the barn. He's already got computer-assisted drawings to guide his work.
It's a job that calls for about 80 percent preparation and only about 20 percent actual painting.
Come Saturday, he'll lay down a base coat of white paint. The special UT Orange paint comes last.
You never know how much paint a surface will suck up, but he guesses it won't be more than a handful of cans. Carpenter said they assume the mural will last about 10 years before it needs touching up.
The weather can be Freeman's friend, or his enemy. Standing alongside the barn in the July heat, the artist said he'd use the shade as much as possible.
He does all the work by himself, usually on a ladder.
"If you're afraid of heights, you don't want to be in this line of work," Freeman said.
For the Bristol barn, the letters will be raised up high so drivers a hundred yards away on I-81 will clearly get the message.
On past jobs he's enjoyed the honks and greetings he's gotten as the UT mural took shape. It'll be interesting to see what kind of reception he gets from truckers, tourists and locals as he commences to slap those wooden planks with orange paint.
Stone, who grew up on the farm and whose family has lived there for many generations, cautioned Freeman on Friday that he might encounter a few coyotes while working on the hill.
"I'm not scared of them," Freeman said. "What I always say is if they don't bother me, I don't bother them."
After a pause, Stone observed it was possible the artist might see a black bear as well.
An amused Freeman wondered what his options would be in that case. Perhaps to puff himself up to look much bigger? Maybe it'd be better to stay on the ladder and hope for the best.
"That's when maybe you're gonna have to call me," Stone said. "Of course, it may be too late."
You can learn more about Freeman's work here.