Turning billboards into artworks

Four billboards in and around College Station, Texas, currently display artwork created by visual and dramatic arts students at Rice. This past fall, the students were tasked with extending cultural thinking beyond the traditional places for art, such as museums and galleries, by creating billboards featuring their original works. The four billboards measure 22 feet by 11 feet each.

"Howdy?" by Michael Loconte. (Photos courtesy of Christopher Sperandio.)

The students’ works of art were part of Christopher Sperandio’s Outside Context course, which examined the evolving role of art in contemporary society. Lamar Outdoor Advertising donated the billboard space and will display the works of art until the space is sold to other clients.

Sperandio, assistant professor of visual and dramatic arts, said the students’ art was designed to be thought-provoking and seen by a wider audience. “We wanted to make artworks that were either quizzical on purpose or set in some kind of context,” he said. The context was determined by the students, who wanted to engage with students at another university and ultimately chose Texas A&M University.

"Have you seen this child?" by Constance Lewis.

The students knew message brevity was key, Sperandio said. “The message needs to be incredibly simple if people are going to be driving by at 40 mph.”

After a research period, including meetings with students and faculty at Texas A&M on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, women’s education, arts education, sustainable farming and other issues, the students went through a design phase to create artworks that aimed to illustrate the topics in a visual engaging display.

One of the billboards, titled “What’s Left? Her Right to Write,” was created by Yutian He, a Martel College junior who wanted to highlight gender inequality in education around the world. She worked with Texas A&M’s Life to Love student group, which advocates for the empowerment of women worldwide through access to education. The impetus for her bright yellow billboard’s message was personal; it is dedicated to a friend of He’s, Vivian, who died at a young age. “Vivian was very passionate about advocating for women’s rights, so, initially, when this project came about, I had this kneejerk reaction that I wanted to do something about that (women’s rights),” He said.

"What's Left? Her Right to Write" by Yutian He.

“Howdy?”, a one-word billboard created by Baker College junior Michael Loconte, seeks to bring to light the apparent duality of Texas A&M’s famous “Howdy!” greeting. Loconte painted the greeting’s letters in the rainbow flag colors signifying the LGBT community. He said while on the one hand “Howdy!” is a harmless and traditional Texan welcome, it can also raise questions about LGBT inclusion on a university campus that has been ranked as one of the least LGBT friendly in the nation. “I wanted the billboard to be not necessarily advocating for any side, but raise the question of whether College Station is LGBT friendly,” Loconte said. “It raises the conversation.”

Heather Olson, a Wiess College senior, used her billboard to urge drivers to “Trust people with dirt on their hands.” She worked with Texas A&M students David Smith and Elizabeth Kennedy of the Howdy Farm, a sustainable student-run farm, to create the billboard, which features a photo of a hand dirtied with soil. Olson said the message challenges the authority that society grants to scientists and bureaucrats in debates over farm policy and practices.

"Trust people with dirt on their hands" by Heather Olson.

“I’ve done a lot of work at Rice with sustainable food and local food, so that is an issue that is a go-to for me,” she said. “A&M has a student-run farm, which is something that has been a dream of mine for Rice. I wanted to know more and give their farm a presence and be able to support them. Also, because A&M is an agricultural school and there is a lot of debate surrounding genetically modified foods and organic versus conventional agriculture, I wanted to engage with that discourse.”

“Have you seen this child?” by Constance Lewis, a Master of Arts in Teaching graduate student, addresses the state of art education in public schools. The “missing child” depicted in her billboard is a 15-year-old Pablo Picasso. The billboard was inspired by the Picasso quote “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Lewis said she wanted to raise questions about the core skill set with which people hope to equip future generations. “Art education is a necessity,” she said.

The billboard project was supported by the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts and is part of “Cargo Space,” a mobile arts residency and art space program developed by Sperandio.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.