A group of teachers, students and artists has been quietly making a dent in the decay along the route east of Nob Hill, transforming vacant signs into public art
In Route 66’s glory days, signs of all kinds dotted Central Avenue. As use of the famous highway declined, and businesses moved or closed, those blank facades reinforced the sense of desolation along parts of Central.
A group of teachers, students and artists has been quietly making a dent in the decay along the route east of Nob Hill, transforming vacant signs into public art. Friends of the Orphan Signs began when art graduate students at the University of New Mexico took a stroll down Central in 2009. Instructor Ellen Babcock, a transplant from San Francisco, recognized them as great, empty canvasses. Thus FOS was born.
Working with students at Highland High from 2009 to 2010, FOS began adding poems to what was once the Tradewinds sign. A marquee displayed a phone number to which interested parties could text messages for display on the sign. “I’m interested in putting art in places where it’s least expected,” Babcock says.
Lindsey Fromm, another transplant new to grad school at UNM, read the messages on that sign, like “I clap for you in my head all the time” and “Bus is never closed to crazy.” “I thought, ‘Oh my God, who’s doing this?’” Fromm says. “It really played to my sense of humor and humor in art.” She found Babcock and also began working with students at Highland. “We asked them what did they want to see in the city? What was the city lacking?” Fromm says.
The students made lists of images, and they played, took photos and learned Photoshop. Those efforts resulted in two images: A woman looming over the Sandias, pouring water. The other side showed a woman with light emanating from her hands. The students and FOS then made a pitch to the City ‘s Public Art Board to put the work on the former Sarape Restaurant sign at 5025 Central NE. The board selected the design – “Revivir” (Spanish for “revive”) – and funded its installation. In March 2012 the work won the Americans for the Arts Outstanding Public Project Award.
“Revivir” is a permanent work, but the other signs change once or twice a year. FOS currently has four projects in process, including two on Central, one at Sixth Street and Mountain Road and one in the Barelas neighborhood. Highland High art teacher Ramon Gomez says once students see their work displayed along the Mother Road, it’s transformative. “They say ‘Oh my God, we did that and it’s in our neighborhood, and we get to see it every day,’” Gomez says. As part of the process, students dig deep into the history of Route 66. They also learn to think about who will be affected by their art. Each class votes on the final designs.
In the fall, Dolores Ramos will return to Highland High as a senior. She created a mystical blue vision of the Rio Grande that’s currently on view at 4501 Central NE. It was her first foray into photography, and the experience was an epiphany. Ramos originally planned to be a tattoo artist. “But everyone wants to do that,” she says. “This photography thing made me realize I can be bigger than that and do more than that.” Ramos plans to attend New Mexico State University to study business and art. Launching her own skateboard and clothing line is next on her to-do list.
Babcock says the work serves as a way to help her students realize their own potential. “Their neighborhood has not always been the way it is now, and they can have an active role in shaping it,” she says. FOS has worked with numerous artists, including Nanibah Chacon, Christy Cook, Erin Fussell, Aline Hunziker, Michael Lopez, Jessamyn Lovell, James Meara, Billy Joe Miller, Myriam Tapp, Allyson Packer, and Cristine Posner.
In 2014 Nanibah Chacon worked with students to create a sign showcasing a lowrider car on one side and St. Christopher on the other. As the students explored the area around the sign, they observed homeless people and prostitutes. That prompted more discussion about how little any of us actually know about other people’s stories. As they researched the various legends of St. Christopher, protector of travelers, his checkered past resonated, Chacon says. “It was an interesting idea the kids could relate to, that you’re going to try a bunch of different paths and eventually you’ll find the right one,” Chacon says.
Thanks to a material donation from Denco Sign Co., most FOS works are created on vinyl. This allows them to be removed and replaced. The group found a willing property owner early on in Gerald Landgraf, the owner of Nob Hill Development. “They obviously didn’t look good with nothing on them, and this was an opportunity to spruce up the signs a little bit,” Landgraf says.
In the past, finding signpost homes for the art was done through easements. But the City Council passed an ordinance in late 2014 creating licensing agreements, says Public Art Program Director Sherri Brueggemann. This also covers murals on buildings, and it’s designed to make it easier to carry out more projects. “Both of these really tie into an evolving sense of what public art can be,” Brueggemann says. “It has a shorter life span on purpose so we can bring new stuff, new ideas, new imagery to these structures.”
The group’s work also dovetails nicely with Mayor Richard Berry’s Route 66 Action Plan, which calls for rehabilitating existing signs or repurposing them as public art. The City issued calls for proposals to put art on signs elsewhere, committing $100,000 for a large-scale sign near Interstate 40 and $30,000
for the Sundowner Apartments sign at 6101 Central NE.
The City will also match funds that FOS received from the National Endowment for the Arts for their Barelas sign. FOS has snagged small grants over the years from the New Mexico Arts Council, the H.B. and Lucille Horn Foundation, Black Rock Arts Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation, as well as support from UNM and some landowners. But doing more always depends on funding.
Hopes rose when a proposal by the City, FOS and Working Classroom to commission artwork for 20 signs was selected as a finalist in a $1 million Public Art Challenge hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies. But four other cities got the final nod this month. Babcock is in the process of applying for the Bloomberg grant; she says FOS has identified at least 25 signs on Route 66 – signs just waiting for a chance to be reborn as public art.
Megan Kamerick is an independent radio and print journalist and producer at New Mexico PBS.