ALBUQUERQUE — “Orphan signs,” “skeletal signs,” and “blue sky signs” are names for the unused roadside signs in front of closed businesses and empty lots. These structures are common along old Route 66, notably where interstate highways have shifted traffic patterns away from the Mother Road. One such place is the eastern section of Central Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, between the Sandia Mountains and Nob Hill. Once home to adobe motor lodges, truck stops, and greasy spoons, much of the commercial space in this area was abandoned after the construction of Interstate 40. Many buildings, motels especially, fell into disrepair and were razed, but their Atomic Era Googie signs remained. Some considered the empty sign frames eyesores, but Ellen Babcock, founder and director of Friends of the Orphan Signs (FOS), saw them as a creative and educational opportunity; FOS turns abandoned roadside signs into revitalized works of art.
Currently on view at Fusion in downtown Albuquerque, the Friends of the Orphan Signs Retrospective illuminates FOS’s projects, including temporary visual and text-based public artworks, performances, and community workshops. These projects result from collaborations with civic and nonprofit organizations, New Mexico artists, students of all ages, families, community groups, landowners, and people on the street. “We’re facilitators. We love signs, and we also love engaging with the community in innovative ways,” FOS Project Director Lindsey Fromm told Hyperallergic in a recent interview. “We’re always trying to innovate how we generate our work.”
Some of their earliest projects involved collaborations with students at Albuquerque’s Highland High School, including the rehabilitated art sign “Revivir” (2012) — which earned the FOS national attention when it was recognized as an Outstanding Public Project by Americans for the Arts in 2013. The two-sided, backlit neon sign features two images created by Highland students. On one side, a woman pours a pitcher of water into the parched Rio Grande Valley. On the other, a different woman holds the rising sun in her hands above the Sandia Mountains. The lot that “Revivir” was on was recently purchased, and the sign was taken down, but it is being saved for permanent installation at the Route 66 Visitor’s Center, which is set to open this year.
Another early project, “Cinnamon Tree” (2013), was created by asking people at a bus stop where they were going and turning their answers into a multi-directional signpost. That post, which listed places such as “Work,” “Paradise,” “Texas,” and “The Liquor Store,” was then photographed, and the photograph was blown up and installed in an orphan sign. It is one of the group’s more humorous projects. A sign that offers a mixture of laughs and insights is “Donut Mart” (2018-19), which became available to FOS when the eponymous bakery closed. Creative Director Sara Rivera coordinated a bilingual micro-poetry experiment using the letters of the last message on the sign: “ANY SIZE FOUNTAIN 99¢ ATM EBT INSIDE.” Results included “BAD SONNETS 99¢,” “YOU AMAZE ME OFTEN,” and “UNA TIENDA DE NUBES” (a cloud store).
Other works represented in the retrospective include “Revision 2020,” in which Rivera cropped historical photographs from the Albuquerque Museum Photo Archives, and local poet Beca Alderete Baca responded to the images. The project aimed to harness the power of public imagery to highlight and expand shifting cultural narratives. It is currently in its second iteration, “Revision 2023,” which engages a broader crop of artists. “Casa Barelas” (2017), led by Babcock and Christine Posner, working with Spanish-speaking residents of Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood, completely revitalized a mid-century gas station sign with a rotating neon-bordered oval. Artwork and community messages for the sign’s reader board were generated through workshops.
Babcock notes that, while beautiful examples of design and craft, Route 66 signs are vestiges of 20th-century White westward expansion. FOS’s projects, rooted in social practice, have allowed locals to use structures Fromm describes as former “beacons of capitalism” to communicate their self-determined identities through prominent public artworks.
“Route 66 was a big part of Albuquerque’s development, and the signs were aesthetic markers of that. Now, so many of those classic signs are in disrepair or empty. Their skeletons have become lines on the landscape. I think they’re an asset that can be reclaimed and repurposed,” says Fromm. “This is a way to create a lot of public art.”
“And diverse kinds,” adds Babcock. “The most recent series of signs have messages that might be slightly more provocative — that everybody may not agree with. Usually, signs contain business advertisements, public service messages, or church signs about saving your soul. To disrupt that and create a platform where you’re not sure where the voice is coming from allows for more diversity of voices.”
Friends of the Orphan Signs Retrospective continues at Fusion (700–708 1st Street Northwest, Albuquerque, New Mexico) through April 28. The exhibition was curated by Lindsey Fromm.