I’ve been in central PA since late March— in the small town I’m from, where I haven’t lived for 20 years. This part of the world is rural, very white, very 'churchy', and everywhere you look pro-trump. What a shock, returning from the bay area to this place I hold dear// at arm’s length. I struggle to reconcile the gentle friendliness I remember with the bigotry on display in MAGA yard signs and confederate flags up and down these roads.
I became aware of the Ahmaud Arbery murder in April and wanted to make a piece of public art to address it. I painted a life size plywood sculpture of Ahmaud jogging and placed it next to our sidewalk, facing cars as they come off the highway. The back said “AHMAUD ARBERY. Murdered by white supremacists. SAY HIS NAME.” My hope was to raise awareness about his murder and engage this community in conversations about white supremacy. My fear was retaliation or vandalism but most people surprised us by stopping to say thanks, take pictures, or talk about what it meant. We had a really rewarding talk with our 84 year old neighbor Phyllis about ALL LIVES MATTER vs BLACK LIVES MATTER and the notion of ‘not seeing race’. My partner got to meet the organizers of the local BLM movement, an amazing black youth lead group called “If Not Us Then Who?” when they stopped to take pictures, arms raised in the black power salute.
The term COVID SILVER LININGS has been floating around for a while. For me, for sure, the silver lining has been two synchronistic phenomena. The first is an unexpected, prolonged quarantine back in this place. As a weird gender-addled homosexual feminist, I chose to not live here in the last two decades. But as a white, born-and-bred central-Pennsylvanian, I feel uniquely qualified to try and start these conversations with other white people in the area. The second silver lining is a (long overdue) ability to get past myself and DO SOMETHING. All the paralyzing worries—being an imperfect activist/revealing my unchecked racism/getting called out/etc — are not running the show anymore. In this powder keg of a moment, there’s no choice but to act. Expecting perfection in activism, as it’s been said, is a symptom of white supremacy. It’s all hands on deck— we’re not going to be perfect but the only way to learn is to try. I’m grateful for the chance to participate and get better as I go.
In the late hours of July 16, my room mate Bruce came running into our bedroom yelling “did you hear that? Someone just shot up the Ahmaud sculpture”. Ughhhhh. Outside, someone had beaten the head off of the sculpture (probably with a bat not a gun/ maybe both). Wood splinters and pieces of a painted face were scattered in the grass and nearby garden. Far off, a car slithered away. How dismal, to reproduce this tragedy on any scale— to leave your house under cover of night, clutching your bats or guns, drive to someone’s home and obliterate with your chosen weapons a memorial to a murdered man.
The next morning I painted a sign: “LAST NIGHT SOMEONE SHOT/SMASHED THIS SCULPTURE TO PIECES. FRAGILE/COWARDLY/VIOLENT. TALK TO YOUR KIDS/FAMILY/NEIGHBORS ABOUT RACISM”.
It was a choice- to draw attention to the violence rather than mend or reproduce the artwork. We want everyone driving by to reckon with what’s at work here. The vandal did more to amplify the message than my initial painting ever did. Neighbors now stop by every day to express curiosity, sorrow, shame, outrage, assistance. One morning, suddenly, the sculpture was surrounded by buckets of flowers. And more show up every few days. An anonymous someone comes early every morning to water them, though we’ve yet to cross paths.
The outpouring of care has been immense. I’ve met more neighbors this past month than I ever did living here. It troubles me that we well intentioned white folks tend to point with outrage at especially grotesque/cartoonish examples of racism while neglecting to examine our own complicity in its many insidious forms. I hope the hard introspective work is happening too. But it feels like progress to be talking, finding networks of solidarity, and speaking out.
Billboards Across America
Our next project is going bigger than sculptures in the neighborhood. We are renting a billboard to fill with anti-trump messaging between now and the election. People here are soft spoken and private about their politics. I think the toxic aggression of loyalists can make it seem like they’re the only voice in the room. Our experiences have made me realize thats not exactly true. Our hope is to amplify the ideas we usually share in an echo chamber and let this red valley know not everyone abides by the atrocities of his sad administration.
Thanks to community support we have enough money to buy one billboard a month from August through October on a local commuter highway. My quarantine pod (with input from friends, family, locals, and some Trump supporters) discussed goals and played around with designs. We ultimately decided our goal was to convince as many people as possible to vote against this administration. Surprisingly this meant choosing a design that veers away from bold political proclamations and aims towards pragmatism and voters’ self-interest. It was interesting to see how this process played out. Our finished product was very different from the one we started with. Our two subsequent designs will target different demographics. (Today we started work on a giant hand painted apocalypse scene of “Trump’s America” that will go up in October. Happy Halloween.)
I’m certainly not the first person to consider using billboards as activism, even Oprah Winfrey is at it – putting up billboards in Louisville about the murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. but I’d like to encourage as many people as possible to jump on this wagon. Let’s get billboards across America. It’s so easy! And the impact is broad! Included is a little how-to guide based on our experience designing and renting our sign. You don’t have to live in a small-town to rent a billboard in one. Google will connect you to companies all over the country and for around $1000 you can have a bit of roadside real estate to promote your ACAB/anarchist/lezzie/commie/black power/fuck trump agenda. In this strange new world of digital communication and social isolation it can seem like all we do is preach to the choir. I’m excited to see what changes we make when we reach beyond that familiar scenario.
Today, I’m optimistic!
. . .
Silky Shoemaker is an artist from central Pennsylvania. She makes work that explores queer community in its many despairs and ecstasies, solitudes, strangeness, and epic iterations. https://www.silkyshoemaker.com/
Please consider making a billboard of your own. I'd love to see what you come up with! And you are welcome to use our image (above) if you'd like to! I'll add more as we finalize designs.
Or, you can donate to our billboard project if you feel moved.
venmo @SilkyShoemaker or paypal: gladhander [at] gmail.com (please put 'billboard' in the subject)