Your art here: Billboards show student work

Art and media are traditionally thought of as separate spheres of interest: Artists show their work in galleries and advertisers create attractive ads for billboards. But the line between these two realms is becoming increasingly blurry, a trend reflected in the School of Art’s curriculum — in particular, in a class called Making Mass Media.

“Each art student is required, at some point while they’re here, to make new artworks outside of the traditional gallery or studio axis,” said Chris Sperandio, the Jill Kraus visiting professor of art. For Making Mass Media, Sperandio wanted to combine the concept of art outside the gallery with his own interest in the cross section between art and advertising. He came up with the idea of installing student art on billboards throughout the city. “In this case,” Sperandio said, “students are using an existing distribution system to produce messages that are unusual or contrary to the messages to which one is typically subjected.”

It took a only single phone call for Sperandio to secure billboards for student use. In November 2006, he contacted Lamar Outdoor Advertising, a major billboard agency in Pittsburgh, and described his idea for creating Making Mass Media, a class specifically oriented toward public art. Lamar accepted his proposal on the spot, and by the start of the new term, Sperandio had acquired four 11-by-24-foot billboards for his students. While he had been aiming for 10 billboards, or as many as Lamar would give, Sperandio is still appreciative of the company’s donations. “We got fewer billboards than we initially wanted, but they were twice the size,” Sperandio said.

The division of billboard space thus became an object of discussion. Because there were only four billboards for a class of 10 students, the class had to decide how to compile the project, in addition to selecting any themes for the project as a whole. After multiple class discussions, the students decided to create a single class-effort billboard. The remaining three would go to the three individual student projects selected by a judge outside the course.

The project’s logistics proved to be difficult. In addition to taking into consideration the billboards’ large size, the students lacked any advance knowledge of where each billboard would be installed. As a result, students had to create universal billboards, accessible to everyone rather than targeting a specific demographic. Moreover, students had to consider the nature of their medium — mostly, the short amount of viewing time available to each passing driver. The message of each effort had to be something easy to take in that would also impact its viewer.

The class’s partnership with Lamar came with its own set of constraints. As a corporate identity, Lamar expected certain standards from the artwork, as well as the subjects addressed in each of the billboards. In order to accomplish this, the messages the artists made, although of their own choosing, had to reflect the corporate partner’s savvy in adopting quality art as well as being understandable by a large distribution network.

The challenge of creating an accessible message stimulated the class. “Usually, artists are limited to a slice of liberal, middle- to upper-class, educated people as their audience,” said Amos Levy, a senior art major. “I think that artists can expand their scope by partnering with corporations… [to] communicate [with] audiences outside of the artist’s usual range.”

At one point, Sperandio invited John Carson, the head of the School of Art, to visit the class. Carson, who had experience managing artistic billboards, primarily in the UK, explained to the students the different ways to approach creating a billboard. According to his lecture, generally the weakest technique is to use already-completed artwork and blow it up to the billboard’s size. Instead, the premise should be to create a piece of art that suits the needs of the billboard and its function. The students used this advice to create their proposals for both the individual- and class-effort billboards.

Elizabeth Thomas, an associate curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art, was the final judge for the individual-effort billboards. “Liz was just a natural choice,” Sperandio said. Because Thomas specializes in the intersection of art and its appeal to the contemporary audience, she was an ideal candidate to judge the students’ projects.


Designed by senior art major Rachel Renee Stewart, “Splat!” begins with a picture of Pittsburgh from a driver’s perspective. Stewart used Photoshop to place a butterfly in the center and printed 10 copies of the image. Using vivid reds, yellows, and greens, which provided bright contrast to the rest of the picture, she flung paint at each print to signify the butterfly’s death collision. “The first one I did turned out to be the one I liked best, but I had to try it nine more times to be sure,” Stewart explained. “I then scanned the completed piece to make a large digital image to send to Lamar.”

“Splat!” was inspired by the audience Stewart anticipated for her billboard. She geared her visual piece towards an experience that all drivers could relate to, particularly as they were speeding by in their cars. “I wanted to make them aware of the effect this everyday mode of transportation has on their senses,” said Stewart. “I focused on the windshield as a barrier... When something from the outside hits the windshield, two opposites [collide].”

“Drawing of Pittsburgh”

An exciting, sloppy, and loving rendering of Pittsburgh, “Drawing of Pittsburgh” only took Levy about 20 minutes to draw. However, his deliberation process regarding approach and content took about a month. Levy also created an alternate draft of his image, which took him about six hours to complete. “I decided afterward that the more time-consuming image was dead,” said Levy. “I want people to be conscious of the place they are in — Pittsburgh. I also want them to think about how simple drawings, ones they could complete, are just as interesting as polished art and advertisements.”

For “Drawing of Pittsburgh,” Levy searched for images of Pittsburgh online and in Hunt Library. He selected an image, traced it with a Sharpie marker, and then scanned it. Levy used Adobe Illustrator to create a vector-based version of his drawing, which magnified the image while retaining the clarity and sharpness of his picture.

“Activating Art”

The product of Blake Unger Dvorchik, a senior art major, “Activating Art” is a simple photograph of bare wooden planks. The planks mimic those on actual billboards, which lay underneath the layers of advertisements. “There were multiple incarnations, three of them, [and] each one only took about two or three hours,” said Unger. “I wanted to keep it simple and clean; my billboard was a straight photograph with minimal color correction in Photoshop.”

A single Post-It note is placed on the right side of the piece. When asked what he wanted to achieve, Unger responded, “In this case, interest — or, failing that, confusion at seeing something different on a billboard.”

“Snowballs from the Freezer”

This piece was a group effort made by the Making Mass Media class, whose goal was to remind viewers of joie de vivre, the joy of life. Following a more traditional style, this final billboard went for a look that was more developed and slick. The effort was cleverly directed toward a working world through the juxtaposition of two things not usually found together: playgrounds and businessmen. In preparation, members of the class traveled to Salvation Army thrift stores in search of business suits. They then went to Schenley Park and took pictures of each other playing on the playground. “A lot of work went into presenting the spontaneity,” Levy joked.

In terms of process, “Snowballs from the Freezer” was probably the most elaborate product. The students chose 14 pictures out of the original 125 shot at the playground, and then edited those photos around the playground setting. The photos were then merged into a shot of the playground, and the students selected the typography for the phrase “Snowballs from the Freezer.”

The billboard designs all share the same core idea, which can be encapsulated in a single word: independence. Each was intended to stand as a single, cohesive piece, independent of a specifically targeted demographic.

The students strove to give people something to think about — friendly ideas to accompany drivers on the highways. For the students themselves, the experience will be something a little different. “Presenting work in a public space is tremendous. From the raw experience of seeing something you made presented in a form that is literally as big as a house, to the exposure of having your work viewed by tens of thousands who might never otherwise see what you make,” said Sperandio, “this will be a transformative experience for all involved.”