Read Between the Signs Background Information  


The idea for Read Between the Signs (RBTS) surfaced in December 2001 after completing Signs & Flowers. While working on Signs & Flowers I realized that it would be possible to use discarded road signs to create a roadside relief sculpture that would screen the unsightly PennDOT storage lot while also celebrating our environment and creating a sense of place within our community.

Almost as quickly as the idea surfaced, I tried to dismiss it. A project of this scope would require a major commitment over many summers of work. The fence surrounding PennDOT's lot is over 1200' in length and the height of the existing fence (set at six feet) would have to be extended if we intended to provide any real screening of the storage lot. Despite this, I just could not get the idea out of my mind so I called Jack Molke, at that time District Manager at PennDOT, and set up a meeting. We discussed the idea and Jack agreed to support the project. In what felt like an instant, a new collaboration with PennDOT was formed.

Since 2002 RBTS has evolved – and continues to evolve - as a participatory community-based arts collaboration. Each year we begin our work with a series of charrettes and workshops where ideas for the project are identified and later are literally woven into the fabric of the resulting roadside relief sculpture.

The general concept for the project arose during preliminary charrettes held in 2002 during PennDOT's Summer of Safety Program. Over 300 people attend this program annually and numerous suggestions were offered about what might be built into the 'fence' including references to Conneaut Lake and the Blue Streak Rollercoaster, the Thurston Classic Balloon Race (fabricated during the summer of 2004), the Crawford County Fair, and the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Adults and children alike drew pictures for us that were adapted into our plans. In subsequent years I expanded these community workshops into the local schools thereby engaging over 200 youth annually in designing for the project. To date more than 900 community members have provided design ideas for the project.

Each year I have been fortunate to be able to hire a team of Allegheny College and community interns to work with me on fabrication and installation, which is done in collaboration with PennDOT employees, an amazing group of individuals who no longer look at us as if we are entirely crazy to be doing this work! The reality of time constraints and the immensity of this project have constantly tempered my desire to push beyond the flatness of the roadsigns. Despite this, I think we achieve a reasonable balance and have been able to push the sculptural nature of the project.

Each year we are also led into unusual or unanticipated partnerships. In the summer of 2004 for example, we were led into collaboration with PennDOT's welders and electrician's to devise a plan to motorize the Ferris wheel. This led us to Cecil Stevenson, a Greenwood Township Supervisor and owner of Stevenson's Enterprises. Cecil helped us design a realistic plan, which involves re-use of an old solar powered signboard (complete with batteries so the solar power will be stored) to drive a motor and turn the wheel. The inclusion of this kinetic feature provided the stimulus for incorporating other kinetic features including a series of fish that ‘jump’ out of a stream, and a grouping of 25 larger than life wind-powered snowflakes, all of which were inspired by drawings for the school-based workshops that I led. To engineer these snowflakes we collaborated with students and faculty at Precision Manufacturing Institute (PMI) and Craig Newall Welding in Cambridge Springs. Craig’s welding shop power cut the snowflakes for us and PMI faculty helped us engineer and balance the casings so our snowflakes would spin.

When Read Between the Signs is completed we will have created a 1,200' x 9' (over 12’ tall in some sections) sculptural relief fabricated entirely from discarded road signs. This roadside intervention celebrates our community, and the landscape and environment that both surrounds and contains us, and defines who we are. The possibilities are limitless and the work that results will depend largely on who are partners are, and those in the community who take the time to bring us their ideas. If you have an idea, please take time to share it with us.

Amara Geffen
Arts & Environment Initiative Director