Billboards as a beacon of hope and support
“It’s not easy to get out of your personal, cultural, technological bubble. I think if we, as a society, redefine what a stranger is, we would have more of a society.”
Wing Young Huie, a Minneapolis-based photographer, spoke those words to Hennepin Theatre Trust in the spring of 2019, as a reflection of the art he puts into the world — work that serves to close the gap between humans. At the time, he was working with a group of Minneapolis students to create a larger-than-life collage of portraits for a Trust public art project celebrating the people of Hennepin Avenue.
Now, as a pandemic has forced many of us in bubbles of a different kind, it is again artists who are working to bridge those gaps. To send a message of hope to those affected by COVID-19 and gratitude for the people working on the front lines, the Trust has partnered with Clear Channel Outdoor and commissioned Huie and 10 other local artists to create images for a digital public art installation that will be displayed across the Twin Cities metro. The virtual exhibit, called “Art Connects Us,” consists of 10 billboards displayed on 60 billboards throughout the five-county metro area at no cost to the Trust.” Clear Channel Outdoor estimates that “Art Connects Us” will reach more than 13 million people during the six weeks the exhibit is displayed.
Reggie LeFlore, a graffiti artist who has also worked on Trust art initiatives in the past, wasn’t subtle about his message for this project. His piece features the words “thank you” in all caps, against a backdrop of a smiling construction worker, medical professional and delivery person. His gratitude amplifies the gratitude many are feeling for essential and front-line workers, but, like many, LeFlore is balancing multiple emotions. He’s shouting his gratitude in all caps even while he’s losing potential opportunities due to social distancing measures. “The pandemic has caused a lot of my upcoming mural and public art projects to either be canceled or postponed, and fortunately, organizations like Hennepin Theatre Trust are able to provide resources to support us local creatives to inspire others in such difficult times,” says LeFlore. He added that the compensation from this project allows him to continue his studio work to contribute to his rent and utilities on time.
The project features work from emerging and internationally renowned artists, both of which are focusing energy into providing emotional support for people in this difficult time.
“Artists are essential in their communities, especially in times of distancing,” says Joan Vorderbruggen, who leads the Trust’s public art programs. “We saw an opportunity to mobilize local creatives and wanted to provide a canvas for them to express their sense of solidarity and unity.”
Much of the artwork features strong messages.
Artist Marlena Myles says she’s focusing on the Dakota philosophy mitakuye owasin (we are all related), which means “not just being good relatives to each other as people, but also to the land, waters, and fellow animals, to the future generations.” Her billboard image includes the Dakota text “Čhaŋtéwašte,” which means “one’s heart is good.” She says that even through a time of crisis, “there’s much hope for a better future as we work together for it.”
Visual artist Kao Lee Thao echoes that message, saying, “Hope is essential to our survival; we have to thank those who risk their lives every day to save humanity.”
Art by Minneapolis artist Edwin Yang is reminiscent of a “Greetings from Minneapolis” tourism postcard, with a puzzle piece being placed by a gloved hand. Yang says he was inspired by front-line workers.
“While many stay inside working on puzzles, essential employees are dealing with similar but more important struggles,” says Yang. “Picking up the pieces and making order out of chaos. Working together towards a common vision. Solving problems one at a time.”
The tourism imagery resonates with Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis, who often highlights the importance in art to make communities vibrant.
“The Trust, like all of us, has been finding new ways to engage with the public and showcase what makes Minneapolis unique,” says Tennant. “This initiative will help drive cultural vitality, which is essential now and when we’re able to welcome visitors back to the Minneapolis region.”
“Art Connects Us” runs April 15 through the end of May on billboards across the Twin Cities metro.
Hennepin Theatre Trust drives cultural and economic vitality in Minnesota through leadership of the Hennepin Theatre District and educational programming that reaches every corner of the state.