Drive-by art hits Upper Peninsula highway

Jul 21, 2020

After crossing the Mackinac Bridge and heading west on US Highway 2 in St. Ignace, I’m looking for something I was told would be just outside of town.


Believe it or not, I’ve come to this part of Michigan to look at a billboard.


Typically on billboards in this area, there are ads for McDonald's or a casino, or maybe that famous U.P. Mystery Spot. Well, that’s not what’s on this one.


“It’s a girl with green hair and she has wings coming out of her arms and she’s beginning to fly," says artist Katie Eberts. "She’s surrounded by these kind of turquoise birds and they’re all taking flight together. And she’s surrounded by flowers."


Katie painted the watercolor image seen on this billboard. It’s part of a collection she worked on while quarantined called “The Strangest Dream.”


“So my series, there’s a bunch of floating characters that are upside down," she says. "Nobody is upset, but they’re like, ‘what is going on and how did I get here?’”


Which is a question you might ask when you see the billboard — what is going on and how did this art get here?

Travis Rix co-founded Save Art Space in 2015. Here, he looks up at one of the billboards along U.S. Highway 2 in the U.P.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

“We’re using consumerist infrastructure for culture, I guess,” says Travis Rix, one of the brains behind Save Art Space – a nonprofit that rents billboard ad space and turns it into public art.


Besides Katie Ebert's, there are four other art billboards in the Upper Peninsula. They’re all on U.S. Highway 2 and they stretch from St. Ignace to Gould City. Every one of them features U.P. artists.


"That’s what we love, to find new places and experience the art and share the art with the people that live there that may have never seen it before,” says Rix.



The idea of turning billboards into public art spaces came to Travis Rix around 2015. He was studying photography at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. There he began noticing a lot of ads going up right over public art murals that had been painted in his neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Art from U.P. wood burning artist Joanna Walitalo, off U.S. Highway 2 near Gould City.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

“You could still see the murals on the outside, the art still hanging out on the corners and stuff. And then in the middle of it is like an ad for Modelo or something," he says. "It’s not what you want to see.” 


That’s when he and a friend launched Save Art Space. Since it was founded, Save Art Space has rented billboards for art all over the country — Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and many others.


Rix says they display art in public spaces because it’s for everyone to enjoy, not just a select few.


“I’ve worked in a gallery before in New York, and people would open the door just a little bit, stick their head in and say, ‘Can I come in? Is this for everybody?’ And I would always say, ‘Yeah anyone can come in. There’s no obligation to buy.’ And then they would just kind of look around real quick and then leave. They still didn’t feel comfortable,” Rix says. 


Just outside of Bob’s Stop & Shop in Gould City, several more art billboards sit perched off the highway. One is a bit of an impressionist take on a beach landscape.

Shena Sloboda's art is featured on a billboard near Bob's Stop and Shop in Gould City.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

Another features an image of three rugs — they have endangered wildflower designs woven into them.


Up the road to the west, another billboard features a woodburning artist. It’s a scene of an idyllic campsite in the woods.


The billboards are huge — 22 feet by 11 feet — but do tourists like Scott Peterson see them?


“I didn’t," he says. "Until you pointed out this one, I didn’t know to look for them.”

And what about David Miller? He lives right next to one. Has he noticed the new art?


“No I haven’t, but now that you mention it, yeah it is new," says Miller. “To me it makes it look nicer. I’m just surprised.”


Carol Irving weaves rugs with endangered wildflowers designs. Here, three of her rugs are displayed on a billboard in Gould City.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

Whether or not everybody actually sees the billboards on the side of the road doesn’t seem to bother Travis Rix very much.


“If you see it for two seconds, you see it for half a second, you stand outside like we are for 10 minutes – everyone’s going to have a different experience, and that’s what we’re going for,” he says.


Putting art up on the billboards costs anywhere from $500 - $1000 per billboard. Save Art Space covers most of that cost through fees from open calls for art submissions.


Travis says he wants the art for each exhibit to reflect the taste and culture of the location. 


For instance, in Los Angeles that means putting up billboards of provocative photos exploring artistic nudity. That probably wouldn’t be a great fit in the Upper Peninsula, which is why one of the billboards here is a painting of two mallard ducks.


“Two ducks floating by each other," says Rix looking up at the billboard. "I think the title is called ‘Friends in Passing.’ It’s perfect. It’s beautiful. It represents the area, what you may see around here. I love it.”

Sarah Tule's painting of two mallard ducks are featured on a billboard in St. Ignace. The piece is titled "Friends in Passing".
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

Even though the art sensibilities in an urban area are perhaps much different from a rural one, Rix doesn’t feel like he’s compromising his artistic vision by putting art up that doesn’t push the envelope.


“If it’s provocative art, if it’s just the average person’s art — I still feel it accomplishes the same goal of putting art in public space, and taking space away from corporations,” he says.


Some of the billboards could be up for months. Rix says it all depends on when the next company rents the space and the commercial messages return. 



Meanwhile, as cars and trucks whizz by her billboard near St. Ignace, artist Katie Eberts looks up at her art. She’s excited about increased exposure she’s getting and what that could mean for her and other U.P. artists.


And she’s got a message for you.


“Slow down and pay attention a little bit," she says. "It’s easy to just go from Point A to Point B and just stay with our tunnel vision. But I mean, it’s a beautiful world and you should really look around a little bit, you know?” 




The Erickson Center for the Arts in Curtis will also feature the art from the U.S. Highway 2 billboards through early August.



Coverage of the arts on Interlochen Public Radio is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs and the Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network.