Imagine a billboard — not advertising an adult beverage or ambulance-chasing lawyer, but featuring a vibrant mural, powerful photograph, or digital collage created by a local artist.
With large, in-person art viewings on hold because of COVID-19, Detroit- and Los Angeles-based nonprofit SaveArtSpace’s use of large-scale ad spaces to bring such art to the public — and to uplift fellow metro Detroit creatives — has taken on new significance. Despite the nonprofit losing 75 percent of its funding as a result of the pandemic, co-founder Travis Rix knew it was important for SAS to keep going. Billboards, he says, are one of the few forms of public art that can safely be viewed while social distancing.
“It’s kind of like a passive art experience. You’re not getting into a crowd of 200 people to go look at it,” Rix says. “We’re really grateful that we’re able to keep putting out new art during this time.”
Rix and co-founder Justin Aversano started SAS in Brooklyn, New York, in 2015 after finding murals in their Bushwick neighborhood covered over with corporate advertisements seemingly overnight. A native of Grand Blanc, Rix brought SAS to Detroit when he moved to the city’s West Village neighborhood in January 2019. Since then, the nonprofit has partnered on creative projects with Playground Detroit, Darkroom Detroit, ProjectArt Detroit, and other local organizations.
SAS’ first Detroit exhibit of 2020, We Exist — The Future Is Fluid, was disrupted by the pandemic shortly before its launch. The exhibit, exploring gender fluidity, was curated by Detroit artists Cyrah Dardas, Bakpak Durden, and Noura Ballout. While five billboards were put up in late April as planned, the opening show at Hard Gallery in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood, showcasing works by the selected billboard artists and five other artists, was canceled.
“The gallery portion is really important because that allows us to meet the artists and new people that come to the opening,” Rix says. “After the gallery portion was canceled, we still wanted to do the billboards for the people.”
Those billboards were displayed around the city, from Mack and Warren avenues to Seven Mile and Davison Street. Detroit-based artist Darryl DeAngelo Terrell’s “Documentation of Dion Being A Bad Bitch …” invited people into Terrell’s vision of a world where they can exist in all their “blackness, queerness, and femme-ness” through their alter ego, Dion. In the image, Dion is being photographed while draped in sparkling gold fabric in front of a similarly glittering backdrop — elements that Terrell’s artist statement says are influenced by the black urban aesthetic and allude to black queer opulence.
Chicago-based artist Shterna Goldbloom’s “Rochel, Mary, and Baby” comes from her project “Feygeles,” depicting queer ex-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews who have struggled to integrate their history and family traditions with their sexuality and gender. Durden’s work was also a featured billboard. The piece featured the word “WE” and the exhibit’s title, WE EXIST — THE FUTURE IS FLUID, in blue, white, and pink capital letters resembling a neon sign against a black background.
“I feel really strongly about the show; I think we did a really great job,” says Dardas, who was a featured artist for SAS’ first Detroit exhibition, Signs of the Time, last July. “It was good being held by the community and operating regardless of the chaos.”
More billboards are planned. Originally intended for the now-postponed Detroit Art Week, SAS’ July exhibit is curated by two well-known Detroit talents and longtime friends: photographer Bre’Ann White, and visual artist and musician Tashif Turner, aka Sheefy McFly.
To offset the cost of billboards, artists are asked to pay a $10 fee per submission, though they may still offer their works for an exhibit if they can’t afford to donate. Knowing this fee may be unfeasible right now, White and Turner created a mixed-media piece to be sold on the website of Detroit-based fine arts publisher 1xRUN. Proceeds from the sale will supplement funding for the exhibition to take financial pressure off the artists. Turner also created his own series of original small ink drawings and paintings available on the 1xRUN site and is donating half of the proceeds from those sales.
“As time started setting in with COVID, I’m seeing billboards being an alternative way where artists can really showcase their work and still be seen in the midst of social distancing,” Turner says. “So that’s what really put a fire under me to raise more money.”
White, whose “Creation of Her” photograph portraying a modern, feminine interpretation of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” was featured on a billboard for Signs of the Time, saw how the pandemic was affecting local artists’ ability to create new work.
“It’s scary right now when it comes to creating,” White says. “I advocate for creative entrepreneurs, and my overall hope is to get people that don’t get the chance to showcase their art in the city. I want them to be able to do that.”
Head to saveartspace.org for more information on exhibitions and events.