The skies were gray with only a hint of sun and Kirsten Stray-Gundersen was up on a stepladder, sliding her tiny paintbrush along the outline of a skier’s shoulder.

“I’m loving it,” she said. “It’s really rewarding to have people come by and smile really big and say, ‘That looks great.’”

It was Thursday and Stray-Gundersen was at Quarry Road Recreation Area in Waterville, painting a 6-by-8-foot mural of two cross-country skiers — directly on the base of a concrete Interstate 95 bridge abutment.

The 22-year-old Colby College graduate volunteered to paint five murals on the abutments to greet visitors as they enter the recreation area. The colorful murals depict people biking in spring, canoeing in fall, skiing in winter and running in summer — and the fifth will be a welcome sign.

“It’s basically to advertise the kinds of things you can do here,” she said. “It’s a gem and no one knows about it. I hope that these murals invite people to feel more comfortable here.”

Before graduating from Colby May 20, Stray-Gundersen was a member of the college’s Nordic, or cross-country, ski team. In 2008, she started running at Quarry Road in the fall as part of her training, and then she skied there in winter. She also taught middle school students to ski through the Central Maine Ski Team.

“I’ve grown to love this area,” she said.

Her light brown hair tied up in a knot, the blue-eyed Stray-Gundersen explained how she got involved in painting the murals.

She had been talking with Waterville Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan last fall and knew some painting projects were being planned on the bridge abutments, which were peppered with graffiti. Having minored in art at Colby, she decided to submit some designs and volunteer to do the artwork.

She chose to paint skiers racing because the recreation area hopes and expects to host a lot of races there, she said.

“The course is going to be internationally approved as a race course, so it’s going to be a cross-country racing hub,” she said. “It’s a good location for racers and it’s right off I-95, which is great.”

Her volunteer work is a way to give back and hopefully help draw more people to Waterville, which has worked hard to improve its downtown and other spaces, she said.

“I really think that the recreation area is going to be key to that development, so I’m more than willing to help. I want to see them do well. I think it’s a great project. It’s a free recreation area. This is a very beneficial thing for the city and I’d like to see it succeed.”

Besides her love of skiing, Stray-Gundersen is interested in sustainable development, architecture and planning, which she studied in Denmark her junior year. She initially majored in biology at Colby, expecting to become a doctor like her father and grandfather, but then switched to sociology and decided to pursue her interest in art as well.

After completing the murals in two or three weeks, she hopes to gain some expertise in urban planning, perhaps by finding a volunteer internship in Portland, and then go on to graduate school.

“I want to stay in Maine,” she said. “I really love Maine.”

Born in Dallas, she later moved to Norway with her family and then attended junior high and high school in Utah. Her father, who works for the U.S. Ski Team, and mother, who works in public relations, put her on skis at age 1 1/2, she said.

She wanted to ski in college and had cousins living in Maine, so she checked out Colby’s program.

She visited the college, hit it off with the Nordic ski coach, Tracey Cote, and had a wonderful four years there.

“Colby was great and they gave me a room up in the dormitory and they’re letting me to stay two or three weeks so I can finish this project, which is awesome. Colby has been very supportive.”

As she speaks, I can’t help but wonder about all of the young men and women who have come to Colby over the years and given so much to the city.

Many have stayed because they grew to love it so much and many, like Stray-Gundersen, will leave Waterville a better place.

We continue to reap the rewards of their gifts.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Saturdays. She may be reached at acalder@centralmaine.com