Friends of the Orphan Signs is a collaborative art organization that works with community members to bring their voices to empty billboards and signs in Albuquerque.
“Txt poems: 569-0061.” So read the Tradewinds sign, a reader board on Central Avenue in Albuquerque in a lot that once housed a vibrant motel in the 1960s that was later condemned. An early project for Friends of the Orphan Signs, a collaborative art organization, the Tradewinds sign captures the spirit of FOS: belief in the importance of community voices, generosity in listening, and a grand sense of possibility for the world.
FOS works with artists, students, and neighbors to create intimate art- works in public spaces. Working primarily with abandoned billboards and road signs that have no future—also known as orphan signs, a term used by preservationists—FOS replaces empty spaces with poetry, imagery, and emotional artifacts of the collective.
Ellen Babcock, an artist and arts educator, founded the organization in 2010, solidifying her interest in the legacy of signs on historic Route 66 in Albuquerque. From the organization’s inception, Babcock and her team have honed their approach to collaboration while giving new life to orphan signs and to give voice to community members who are often spoken to, not with.
For the Sundowner project (2019), FOS held workshops with residents of a housing community to create billboards that revere the residents’ life experiences. A lion’s face peers from the sign, an image from a pillow one resident kept with her when she was unhoused. For the Keywords project (2019-2021), FOS held workshops at Albuquerque libraries, asking participants to respond to literary quotes. Excerpts from the participants’ work were then placed on an empty sign where an iconic local nightclub once stood: “Sunrise on this side of the city clears its throat.”
Lindsey Fromm, FOS project director, emphasizes the importance of setting the stage for collaboration to happen. “By creating an environment of trust, connection, and common ground, we are able to get to deeper places and we’re able to make more rich, interesting work.”