Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Signs as Yard Art in Amarillo, Texas

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Signs as Yard Art in Amarillo, Texas

Article excerpt

In 1990 the artist Stanley Marsh 3--who uses "3" because he considers "III" too pretentious--placed in his front yard a sign similar in size, shape, and height to a warning sign, but it read, "Road Does Not End." He created this sign after seeing a traffic sign that read, "Road Ends 300 Feet." He realized that signs are invasive and send negative messages, and he decided that signs could be used to display art (Rodriguez 2002). Thus began a campaign to place sign art throughout the city of Amarillo, Texas. From a few initial signs with a blue dot or a picture of Marilyn Monroe with "Marilyn" inscribed beneath it the effort mushroomed into an eight-year campaign that generated more than 5,000 traffic-style signs distributed across the urban landscape (Marsh 2001). Using a field inventory and survey of Amarillo residents with signs, we analyzed the clustering of signs in this unique, "authored landscape" and examined what the signs mean to residents.

Marsh's signs have some parallels with such roadside entities as the ubiquitous Burma Shave or Mail Pouch signs, but Marsh intended his signs for art, not commerce. They also have some parallels with Zurich's and then Chicago's 1999 display of painted "Cows on Parade," which many cities imitated both with cows and with other animals. San Jose, California, for example, used fiberglass sharks; Cincinnati, Ohio, displayed pigs; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, exhibited horses in equally eye-catching but temporary public displays of art. Chicago had smaller numbers of its art objects (262) on view in public spaces downtown for four months (Sullivan and others 1999).

Amarillo, in contrast, has thousands of permanent signs--roughly one for every fourteen households in the city--on commercial, agricultural, and residential property. Though a radical of sorts, Marsh adopted an approach used by many wealthy individuals, private subsidy to support "public" art, that is part of a broader phenomenon of private funding to support public causes. Marsh and his artists designed the sign content and allowed each resident to select a sign from a limited set.

Marsh's signs are a unique example of an authored landscape. It is common in U.S. society for the elite to play a strong role in creating a local environment. The New York metropolitan area, for example, would not be the same without the influence of Robert Moses (Samuels 1979). But the form of cities is also shaped by the acts of a diversity of individuals, households, firms, and governmental as well as nongovernmental agencies. In creating the Amarillo yard-art project, Marsh was not alone in creating the landscape. He could place the signs on his own property, but it took the cooperation of thousands of property owners and city regulatory agencies to make this authored landscape possible.


Marsh's signs mix two distinct phenomena--public art and yard ornaments. Public art takes many forms, such as lions outside libraries, Christo's wrappings, sculptures both realistic and abstract in public places and plazas, and fiberglass animals on city sidewalks. It is common in U.S. cities that these works, often encouraged by art programs and intended as art, are also decorative.

Yard ornaments are a common decorative feature of the American front yard, and they too take many forms. In addition to the popular pink flamingos, residents put stone figurines, religious shrines, gnomes, geese, seasonal flags, pet-crossing signs, and other figures in their front yards. They also display signs stating that their child plays on a team, performs with the school band, or has achieved an academic honor. Though not normally considered artistic, these signs and decorative ornaments often convey an assortment of cultural, sentimental, individual, and collective meanings. As a form of self-expression, they make statements about conditions and reflect the beliefs and values of their owners. …

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