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Posted December 16, 2014

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Highland Students Give Life to Orphan Signs

High school art and photography students turn skeleton signs into public art.

A lot has changed on Central Avenue in the decades since the heyday of Historic Route 66. Some businesses still shine their same neon signs. Others have long since boarded up. Still others have been torn down and replaced by a new batch of enterprises.

Amid the changes brought on by progress and development, some weathered skeleton signs have survived as reminders of the buildings that once lined the historic route.

To students at Highland High, these bare signs of shuttered businesses aren’t just lingering remnants; they’re blank canvases yearning for art to bring life back to their empty shells.

“This is a town where most people drive and road signs have a lot of power,” said Ellen Babcock, founding director of Friends of the Orphan Signs. “I felt like this is an opportunity to give these signs a voice again. They’ve been abandoned and are broken. But there’s a history that needs to be told.”

For nearly five years, Highland students have been doing just that with the help of Friends of the Orphan Signs.

“It’s a public forum,” said senior Jorge Dimas, photography student working on the project. “It opens people’s minds and gives them an opportunity to think outside the box.”

During the final six weeks grading period, Raymond Gonzales’s art class and Sue Triplett’s photography class have been working with visiting artists to design two temporary sign installations that will be installed in January.

While the designs are still being finalized, Triplett’s class is working to blend cityscapes and landscapes and Gonzales’s class is focusing on imperfection and beauty.

“I think it’s a great thing to get high school students involved and feel like they have a voice in a piece, especially a project like this one that has such an impact on the landscape and culture surrounding the area,” said James Meara, four-dimensional artist working with the project.

Aside from providing a public platform for their voice, Babcock says students are also learning skills beyond the traditional curriculum. The FOS team engages the teens in walking explorations of the sign site, surrounding neighborhoods, slide lectures and group discussions about neighborhood identity, public art, and place making. Rather than the standard expression of art, these students are working through the design process creating something to fit the need of the installation, and learning collaborative and technical skills in the process.

"I think high school is a great age to start thinking about where you live and what you’re a part of,” said Christy Cook, community based artist working with the project. “I think this project gives them an opportunity to do that.”

The project began in 2010 when Babcock approached Highland High to start the Friends of the Orphan Signs afterschool club. The club taught students graphic design and public speaking and prepared them to go before the city of Albuquerque Public Arts Board where they made a design pitch for a sign in front of the old El Sarape restaurant at 5025 Central Avenue.

The board selected the design “Revivir” and funded its installation. Revivir comes from the Spanish word to revive, a fitting name for a rejuvenated sign. In March 2012, “Revivir” won the Americans for the Arts Outstanding Public Project Award.

Since “Revivir,” Friends of the Orphan Signs has expanded from an afterschool club to an integrated part of the classroom. They have created five additional banner signs that have been displayed as temporary installations, with the four (two-sides to two signs) new signs to be installed in January. The project also temporarily included poetry slam on an orphan sign with a marquee, although it was taken down as its site is being redeveloped.

Friends of the Orphan Signs has been funded by New Mexico Arts Council, Nob Hill Development Corporation- Learning in the Schools Grant, and they recently received a Power Up grant from PNM to light the signs as well as create more installations. The Albuquerque City Council approved an ordinance to more easily install public art on old, abandoned signs.

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