Strands of red yarn hang from pins that dot the outline of a U.S. map painted on a pair of windows at Modified Arts, a Roosevelt Row gallery that temporarily closed in mid-March due to COVID-19 public health concerns. Nearby, Mia B. Adams painted this text in all capital letters: “Every pin shown represents an unarmed Black, Hispanic, and indigenous person killed by police.”
The Phoenix artist is one of more than 50 creatives participating in a temporary art project called "Roadside Attraction," which is giving artists new ways to make and share work while most art venues are taking a pandemic pause.
"Roadside Attraction" was organized by ArtFarm PHX, an art collective founded several years ago, in part to present art in nontraditional settings. “One problem with Phoenix is that we don’t have enough places where artists can show their work,” says collective co-founder Patricia Sannit. “It’s especially true now, with COVID-19 added to the mix.”
Sannit conceived of Roadside Attraction after learning of artists making similar adaptations to COVID-19 shutdowns in other cities, then worked with fellow creatives Chris Jagmin, Lisa Olson, and Lani Hudson to bring the idea to life here in the Valley.
Both Sannit and Jagmin have a longtime presence on the metro Phoenix arts scene, where they’ve shown work at numerous venues, including Phoenix Art Museum and Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Olson owns a retail and exhibition space called Practical Art.
Organizers put out a call for artists in early June, inviting them to participate by showing new or existing works in spaces where people could enjoy them while walking, cycling, or driving. Several established artists, including many with significant experience in creating public art, responded to the call.
Laura Spalding Best, a Phoenix artist who painted landscapes on decommissioned traffic signs to create a field mural that’s currently on view near Tempe Town Lake, used wooden pallets and signs to make a temporary fence mural in the Garfield neighborhood.
John Randall Nelson, a Tempe artist whose giant white rabbit sculpture in Old Town Scottsdale sported a yellow mask during early pandemic days, created a new metal sculpture called Everyman. “This piece is an homage to everyday people who are the front line workers, not just during these trying times, but always, every day,” Nelson says.
Most "Roadside Attraction" installations are located in Phoenix, but the project also includes pieces in Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa, and Gilbert. There’s a map showing "Roadside Attraction" sites on the Practical Art website.
Of course, there are other outdoor art offerings around the Valley, including murals, works of public art along the Valley Metro light rail line, and self-guided art tours in downtown Chandler, Mesa, and Tempe.
The project launched on June 26 and continues through July 26. Some installations will be on view the entire time, whereas others will happen on select dates. Most take place between dawn and dusk, although there are exceptions.
For example, several artists will be showing videos in the Practical Art parking lot on July 11, where people can enjoy them from their cars. That same night, the first floor of a building at Roosevelt and Central Avenue will be illuminated by a collaborative installation created by sculptor Pete Deise, choreographer Nicole Olson, and visual artist Rembrandt Quiballo.
"Roadside Attraction" is well-timed given that the downtown Phoenix arts scene is in a state of flux. The arts ecosystem has shifted in recent years, as new developments have meant closures for some galleries and moves for others — including Five15 Arts and Eye Lounge.
Art venues began temporarily closing due to COVID-19 in mid-March, just as the annual multiday Art Detour event organized by Artlink was set to open. Most venues opted to close rather than participate, then remained closed during what would have been subsequent First and Third Friday art walks.
By the time "Roadside Attraction" premiered in late June, Arizona had joined the ranks of states with severe COVID-19 outbreaks. There’s additional context for the project, including recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
In mid-June, the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation indicated that it would be pausing regular virtual and in-person activities, including First Friday events, to address issues of social change and assure that future programming is “safe, healthy, and equitable for everyone.”
Given facts on the ground, it’s no surprise that several "Roadside Attraction" artists made work with a political twist.
Phoenix artist Ann Morton created a special edition of her "Proofreading" series comprising pristine white textiles embroidered in red and blue with edited Donald Trump quotes. The vinyl version created for "Roadside Attraction" riffs on Trump’s COVID-19 prediction: “It’s like a miracle. One day it will just disappear.” Morton uses a proofreading mark to indicate that the word “it” should read “I” instead.
Matt Magee installed a red, white, and blue image he calls Fragment Flag in front of a restaurant on McDowell Avenue near 16th Street. “The image represents divisive speech, divisive tweets, divided families, divided migrant families, divided races, fragmented politics, fragmented political parties, and a broken health care system in the time of COVID-19,” he explains.
Malena Barnhart wrote the word “CREEP” in large letters at the center of a sign that references perpetrators of sexual assault. “Over the course of the exhibition, I’ll be adding stickers until the large orange text is hopefully obscured,” she says.
Another artist, Denise Yaghmourian, is using stickers reading “Just Fucking Vote” to build excitement on social media for her voting-themed installation.
For some artists, participating in Roadside Attraction has been a way of dealing with their own concerns about COVID-19.
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Monica Aissa Martinez saw the call for art while adjusting to new technology for teaching college art classes online, then wrote a blog post about how the project spurred her to go beyond her comfort zone by painting a swarm of bees on a perimeter wall around her home.
Morgan McQuillan, an artist who transformed her front yard into an exhibition space for her own paintings, credits the project with re-sparking her creative energy and helping her connect with neighbors who see the work. “My husband is a musician and we are playing music along with a simple video after dusk,” McQuillan says.
“I was excited to hear about the "Roadside Attraction" show because I love showing art outside,” says Kristin Wesley, an artist whose smiling bright orange and green Friendly Flowers are installed on Grand Avenue. “The COVID-19 situation makes galleries and art walks challenging,” she says, “but I’m thrilled to be part of this experience because we’re able to share work with a bigger audience.”