Roadside Renaissance

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Roadside Renaissance


Henkin, Stephen, The World and I


If you think "roadside art" means just kitschy little highway signs, think again. There's a whole new generation of glorious artwork awaiting today's motorist.

Refined murals on buildings; stone statuary mailboxes; ornately embellished themed eateries; a richly detailed 26-foot-high totem pole; fine, carved-wood folk figures; exotic floating casinos--sounds like the makings of an elaborate Hollywood stage set, right? No, guess again. These are but a few examples of the vast and growing collection of impressive visual displays now lining our nation's highways and byways.

Much to the delight of the long-harried, often-bored motorist, serious public art is now merging with that old standby, roadside kitsch, in new and exciting ways. The task of driving, once considered a ritualized celebration of the freedom and discovery found on our nation's roads, is being enhanced, thanks to the appearance of innovative and varied landscapes of the artistic kind.

Evidence (albeit ignominious) of the maturation of roadside art in America--and the inherent confusion surrounding it--is the recent labeling by J. Carter Brown, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, of the Marine Corps Iwo Jima monument as "kitsch." The statement by Washington's preeminent art authority that the venerated monument is in pretentious bad taste not only has veterans' groups up in arms but strongly suggests how much the aesthetic criticism of roadside art has come full circle. The thin edge between common kitsch and classic monument has been forever blurred. South of the Border kitsch, with all its pseudo-Mexican architecture and faux-Hispanic trappings? Certainly. Mount Rushmore, kitsch? Maybe. The Iwo Jima monument? Never! It's the kind of mistake only a preeminent art scholar could make.

From sea to shining sea, a variety of artistic creations are making the view from behind the wheel anything but dull. Some works, remarkably agenda-free, are reminiscent of the early sign painters, whose simple messages (e.g., "Sharp turn ahead--prepare to meet your Maker") caused drivers to chuckle, or reflect seriously, while negotiating precarious country lanes. However, much roadside art is commercially driven, encouraging drivers to pull in and pay up. Yet despite the motives behind the panoply of emergent art beyond the curb, it cannot be doubted that there has been a quantum leap in both its quantity and quality.

Indicative of the profusion of traffic-friendly artwork is the Lowe Road Art Hall of Fame in Phoenix, whose stated purpose is to pay homage to the "scattered assortment of artworks, ranging from monumental to kitschy, found on Arizona's highways and byways." The idea was conceived by Arizona Republic staff writer Sam Lowe, who started cataloging items in 1994 with a list of twenty-nine objects scattered throughout the state. The roster of inductees has since grown to fifty-four, while the notion of the hall itself has been perpetuated through a column, "On the Lowe Road," every two months.

Criteria for selection to the hall? The object must be located outside a major city, it must be an original, and it must have Lowe's final approval. However, if one gets beyond the temptation to label such an enterprise as "kooky," a survey of some inductees will show why driving across the great expanse of Arizona's deserts is becoming less tedious.

The Oracle (Arizona) Public Library Mural, a beautification project that turned into a major artwork, is a prime example cited by the hall as part of the new generation of roadside offerings. Done in oils, house paint, and ceramics, it traces the community's development from prehistory to the creation of Biosphere 2, a neighboring attraction.

John Bailey's 10-foot fiberglass egg, complete with cowboy hat, sits atop Hawkeye Feed and Supply on Arizona 73 in the middle of Pinetop-Lakeside. Seemingly even more out of place on the Arizona landscape, but aesthetically effective, is the 26-foot-high totem pole in Strawberry commissioned by Ernest Ralls.

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