The Arizona-based ArtFarm PHX collective created a series of outdoor installations to connect diverse artists and audiences while traditional art spaces temporarily closed due to COVID-19.
Strolling through a quiet Phoenix neighborhood, people encounter a majestic mesquite tree transformed by artists Kate D. Timmerman and Rebecca Ross into a mixed-media installation titled Reaching. The installation includes dozens of artworks created by Arizona artists and community members, suspended from the tree’s supple branches to prompt consideration of what people are reaching for during these strange times.
The installation is part of a multisite exhibition called Roadside Attraction: Unity, which opened on January 4 and continues through January 31.
It’s being presented by the City of Tempe, in lieu of an annual walk that typically draws thousands of people for a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, seven cities and towns are inviting people to take a self-guided tour of Roadside Attraction artworks rather than gathering for a unity walk amid COVID-19 public health concerns. Nearly two dozen artists created works for the unity project, including videos, ceramic art, paintings, and more.
Patricia Sannit, an Arizona-based ceramic artist, conceived Roadside Attraction last year in response to early COVID-19 impacts on the local arts scene, including temporary closures of galleries and other traditional art spaces. The closures meant artists had fewer places to show their work beyond virtual online spaces, and people who wanted to see art couldn’t gather for indoor art shows.
Years before, Sannit co-founded ArtFarm PHX, an artist collective that helps artists reach a wide range of community members by sharing work in alternative settings. The collective launched Roadside Attraction in partnership with Practical Art, a retail and exhibition space headed by artist Lisa Olson.
Initially, organizers planned to present a single month-long exhibition comprising works by dozens of artists displayed around the Phoenix metropolitan area. They invited artists to participate by showing works in self-selected locations such as storefront windows, front yards, and cinder block walls (with permission as needed).
More than fifty artists answered that first call. One used pallets to build a fence along her front yard, which became an unconventional canvas for a landscape painting in pastel hues. Another installed a futuristic mutated desert scene in a strip mall store window. Several artists repurposed existing works, and others created new pieces. Some incorporated elements of the urban landscape such as dilapidated signs.
Practical Art posted an interactive map on its website, showing the location of various artworks and providing details about participating artists and their work. Organizers held select events, including outdoor screenings of artist videos. Their pandemic pivot caught on and led to additional iterations, including Roadside Attraction: Now It’s Political, which happened during the run-up to November elections.
For this month’s Roadside Attraction: Unity, organizers added a new twist. This time, there’s a comprehensive map that also includes existing works of public art, such as sculptures and murals commissioned by cities or local businesses. People who follow the map can play a painted piano in a Phoenix art park, watch a video of an artist smashing ceramic plates decorated with hateful words, speed debate intriguing issues in front of a Scottsdale museum, and see a stained glass mosaic on a carved eucalyptus tree.
Collectively, these socially-distant installations have reflected key issues at the heart of contemporary American life, from racial injustice to climate change. Early on, a red, white, and blue silkscreen installed along a busy street called to mind divisive rhetoric, and a series of poetic texts installed on windows for several creative spaces amplified the longing for connection amid social isolation. Today, artworks addressing themes of culture, diversity, and equity are prompting conversations among community members about creating their shared civic landscape.
It’s been nearly a year since traditional art spaces initiated temporary closures due to public health concerns. Some have reopened with new safety protocols, but most artists and creative venues are still struggling to create new models for making and sharing art. For those working to reimagine the creative life of artists and communities, Roadside Attraction provides a compelling model and a poignant reminder of the ways artists and communities can forge new pathways together.