For the past ten years, Friends of the Orphan Signs has been placing small moments of wonder on empty, abandoned, and suspended-in-time signs that anchor Albuquerque to its past as a stop along Route 66.
“Tú me sostienes”
“The nights we had
Churros con chocolate”
“Homesick ghosts keep you awake”
“Para ti oro molido
For you, anything”
Throughout Albuquerque, once-abandoned readerboard signs project moments both intimate and universal. Tender and a little absurd. Sometimes they’re the kind of message that makes you look over your shoulder, wondering who’s been following your thoughts and had time to write a message for you thirty feet above Central Avenue.
For the past ten years, artist and educator Ellen Babcock has been placing small moments of wonder on empty, abandoned, and suspended-in-time signs that anchor Albuquerque to its past as a stop along Route 66. In 2011, she founded Friends of the Orphan Signs, a nonprofit she began after moving to Albuquerque to teach sculpture at the University of New Mexico. Her first apartment was just a block from I-40, where billboards and signs were a main feature of the landscape. After taking a walking tour of Central Avenue with her students, she realized the empty signs around town could be a place for public art—with their visibility, accessibility, history, and nostalgic designs, there was an obvious opportunity to transform someone’s commute.
Along with her graduate students, Babcock formed an after-school art club at Highland High, a local public high school in close proximity to some of the empty signs. By 2010, she and her students approached Albuquerque’s arts board, and in 2011 Friends of the Orphan Signs was born. The organization worked with students at Highland High for the next nine years, bringing in teaching artists who worked with students to plan the design for the orphan sign across the street from their school. The organization has gone on to work on a variety of projects, from more visual art-based signs to text-based works, all with the site’s community in mind.
A term used by preservationists, an “orphan sign” is the last standing relic of a property’s past. An orphan sign is alone, with no business to promote. Its owners have packed up and left, and in many cases, the sign is the only indicator that something else once was. In Albuquerque, orphan signs dot the highways of this city that was historically considered more part of a journey, less as a destination. What is now the meeting place of four cardinal directions of the interstate highways was once where the Camino Real met the Pony Express. Today, with over half a million residents, Albuquerque has staked its claim as a place to be, but the orphan signs are a reminder of its past.
From its start, Friends of the Orphan Signs (FOS) has dug into the idea of the intersection—its literal relation to the road, and the more intangible meeting place of individual and collective—of where art and audience collide. As Babcock started the project, she thought more and more about the history of Albuquerque as an intersection itself, a stop on the road. “What I realized while I was doing this was that people care about signs here. They care about them because they are distinctive in this particular place and they’re integral to the history of it.”
I think that we still carry things all the time, and writing gives us a place to put those things down.
Collaboration has been at the core of FOS’s mission, by way of open calls, partnerships with schools and community groups, and the collaborative nature of making and intaking. In early 2020, poet, artist, and educator Sara Rivera led a series of writing workshops as a component of FOS’s Keywords project, on which she is lead artist. FOS had gained access to the sign outside the former Caravan East Nightclub, an iconic local institution that closed in 2016 after being open for over fifty years and is now being turned into a public library. The sting felt when something so beloved closes was at least partly soothed by the opportunity for the community to be involved. “People were excited to see the marquee still in use because it’s so iconic,” Rivera said. The workshops were held at various public libraries that are close to the site, and a range of community members attended. Rivera would create a prompt based off of a quote or excerpt by a writer who could be found in the library. The groups would then work together to select fragments to put on the sign. “People would write and they would tell some of their own stories. A lot of them had their own memories of the nightclub and would have it in the back of their mind as they were writing.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic rendered in-person events impossible, Rivera took to Instagram. Throughout April of 2020, which is also national poetry month, Rivera posted writing prompts on the platform. “Instructions for hope.” “Our own cathedrals.” “There will be singing.” The prompts resulted in beautiful responses, Rivera said, particularly given the shock and stress at the onset of the pandemic. “Even if you’re writing from a prompt and you don’t think that you’re going to be writing about anything you’re [personally] dealing with, it’s still a very healing process. I think that we still carry things all the time, and writing gives us a place to put those things down,” she said.
Beginning in the early days of FOS, the organization has connected with its audience via short, potent messages in text. “We wanted to be able to interrupt the ways that signs are usually used with more intimacy and more poetry,” Babcock said. “More of the unexpected and mysterious.” In a world where it’s hard to merely think about something before an algorithm finds out and stalks you with advertisements, the sales-free style of FOS is ever more striking. Creating that feeling of surprise when a sign seems to be speaking directly to you—with no motive to sell, just a motive to inspire—is part of the wonder of FOS. “You want to know who the voice is, and when it’s not clear who the voice is, you can imagine that voice.”
“The bus is never closed to crazy.” Such was the FOS message that pulled in artist, educator, and mother Lindsey Fromm. She was, in fact, on the bus when she spotted that message on a distinct vintage sign, complete with rusted metal and broken light bulbs. At age twenty-four, with no car, no connections, and only one way to get to Home Depot for art supplies, she felt that sign was made for her. A graduate student at UNM, Fromm later found out that the person behind the sign that spoke to her was Ellen Babcock. Fromm became involved in the afterschool program at Highland High, and ten years later is one of FOS’s lead artists and organizers, along with Rivera. “It hit so many notes that rang clear to me: that we can work with the community, that we can be educators and artists, and that we can get peoples’ voices into these public spaces.”
With Orphan Signs I saw that making art was a collective activity that was so much more, so much richer and more mysterious and just unknowable, and within that unknowable quantity of what it could be, what it might be, is so much excitement.
At the time, Fromm was investigating what art meant to her. It wasn’t about selling, she knew that. But it was about collaboration. “Even when I have a solo show, I have a huge community of people that have helped me get to that place. It’s not just an individual pursuit, ever. And so with Orphan Signs I saw that making art was a collective activity that was so much more, so much richer and more mysterious and just unknowable, and within that unknowable quantity of what it could be, what it might be, is so much excitement.”
Fromm’s latest collaborators are the children at Elevation Children’s Center, a nature-based preschool in Albuquerque that focuses on outdoor learning. In 2020, Fromm started to join the children on their outdoor adventures, bringing along a Mary Poppins-style bag of art supplies and encouraging the students to express their creativity. Fromm then makes collages from images of the children and their work, which are posted on signs in Albuquerque as well as around the school’s campus. “Our project’s greater purpose is to give local children some ownership over how their neighborhood looks, and to encourage in young people—from the earliest stages in their education—the knowledge that they can have a positive, visible, and lasting impact on their community.” The signs include images of the children holding their work, their hands, and their creative process, making their experience of the world more visible, and making their voices heard.
The collaborative element of FOS’s mission is both in how their projects are created as well as what happens to their projects once they’re in public. Collaboration is inherent in the uncertain future of art once it enters the world—the not knowing what will happen once you loosen your grip on it. “It becomes a conversation outside of us, that’s what’s interesting to me,” Fromm said. “The ownership gets transferred to the community, to the people who see it, rather than the person who made it.”
Rivera explained that FOS aims to inspire people to be interested in their community and history. “We hope to create little moments of mystery and surprise, and with the text-based signs, I like to create moments of very direct connection with people. I like to create moments of joy or comfort where people can feel in dialogue with their city, and the larger community that they’re a part of.”