Driving across the middle of the country, you see billboards everywhere, for things like diners, casinos and adult bookstores. The sign advertising industry is actually worth $7 billion dollars nationwide.
Missouri averages three billboards per mile – more than any of its neighboring states. But when you get to Hatton, Missouri, there’s one sign that’s not like the others. It’s sandwiched between an ad for a strip club and an ad for more billboards in the middle of a muddy soybean field.
The billboard was designed by artist Kim Beck. It has the words “next exit” written in cloud letters against a blue backdrop. The background of the sign bleeds into the actual sky today. There are no logos or branding identification on the artwork.
The billboard towers above Anne Thompson, who teaches art at the University of Missouri. This piece is part of her I-70 Sign Show public art project. Thompson says this sign is meant to subtly confront billboards that ask drivers if they are going to heaven or hell.
“I think the words ‘next exit’ are probably the most [commonly found] along the interstate,” she says. “But when you see them written in clouds as this kind of displaced piece of sky in the sky, it takes on a different kind of poetic meaning, like where is your next exit?”
She picked six artists to create pieces that compete in the shouting match of anti-abortion, gun-rights and political campaign signage along the highway. One piece shows the words “blah blah blah” scrawled across the billboard that tackles the confusion of language. Another sign has the word “Blurred” written half in blue and half in red as a comment on the divided politics of Missouri.
More than 45,000 cars cruise I-70 each day with the chance to catch the socially engaging art. In a city like Chicago, a sign might run you thousands of dollars a month. Here in rural Missouri? It’s only about $900.
One sign has caught the attention of Jessica Baran, the director of the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts in St. Louis.
“To have a large, powerful, very assertive African American female figure flanking the exit that’s leading to where the recent unrest in Ferguson has taken place, certainly has a psychic value,” she said.
Indeed, Thompson says when that sign by artist Mickalene Thomas moved from a soybean field to five miles from where Michael Brown was shot, the conversation changed from gender politics to race politics.
Ultimately, Thompson says she hopes the project continues stirring up more conversations about contentious issues seen from the road.
Featured in: Marketplace Morning Report for Monday, Feb. 16, 2015