The Last Billboard

julie p

Steel frames. Hand-crafted letters. A 36-foot-long board. A spark of artistic expression. All of these things seem to float in the sky above the Livermore building in East Liberty. They come together to form a unique billboard that stretches beyond its function of advertisement. No companies are trying to catch the attention of consumers, no events are being promoted and no business’s slogan is displayed for all to see.

Instead, messages, ideas and questions are displayed.

Some are funny: intellect versus emotion / intellect wins / emotion starts crying

Some are a mystery:

? / (323) 541 6361

Another is touching:

the person standing / beside you, point at this / billboard, has brought you / here because it was too hard / to say "I am sorry" out loud.

One is from an 11 year old girl:

questions for my new blog: / who invented tape, / how were feelings discovered, / when did "skinny" become / fashionable.

Some are just a list:

photo / food / beauty / liquor / rx.

Others make you think:

i wonder some days / if facebook isn't a broad / all encompassing / cry for help.

The man behind the Last Billboard is Jon Rubin, an artist and professor in the art school at Carnegie Mellon University. What brought him to East Liberty was the desire for his students to create outside of the classroom. This desire led Rubin to create the Storefront Project. It was a class in which Rubin rented a storefront in a neighborhood where he and his students could create culture based on what was already present there.

“When I was looking for a storefront, I actually was driving around East Liberty and that space had been empty for three years, right on the corner,” Rubin says. “And it was a really interesting area, it was next to the Shadow Lounge and the Ava Lounge which are very dynamic spaces, especially late at night, and I just felt like it already had a kind of a constituted community that assembled around there and that if we were on that corner we could … figure out a way of working with that community.”

Thus the Waffle Shop was born. Located at South Highland and Baum, the Waffle Shop was a place where people could eat and participate in a live talk show produced by Rubin and his students.

“Many customers who walked in could be a guest on the show and the restaurant was a way of coaxing in kind of a diverse set of the public and involving them in what was like a bizarre stream of consciousness talk show,” Rubin says.

The advertising company that sponsored the billboard above the Waffle Shop building “had pulled out from the ad space up there and what was left was just a steel scaffolding,” he says. “And I just thought, it seemed like a really great potential space to do something on.” Together with friend and architect Pablo Garcia, he worked “to design a structure, a handmade letter system that could be put up on the billboard and changed, in a very clunky old fashioned model,” the artist explains.

The billboard quickly became a thought bubble, featuring noteworthy quotes from the customers above the shop. It evolved into its own autonomous place when the Waffle Shop closed in 2012. Rubin used the funds from the Waffle Shop to help keep the billboard running. When the shop closed, he renamed it “The Last Billboard Project” and paid out of pocket until he received a grant from The Rita McGinley Fund, which is administered through the Pittsburgh Foundation.

“I told the Pittsburgh Foundation that I was looking to have money to continue to support the project and they found this funder who was specifically interested in it, and I met with one of the representatives and they decided to go forward and fund it,” Rubin recalls.

And so the conversation continues. Now artists and everyday people from around the country can send their material to Rubin to be hung in the sky. Their words become something the people of East Liberty can look forward to and interpret in their own way. This interpretation is what first appealed to Rubin when he started the billboard: “I think of this space as just kind of a publishing space, a sort of curated exhibitionist publishing space in East Liberty for writers and artists and people who I think just have interesting things to say,” he says.

Because the billboard doesn’t advertise Rubin, there’s no way for people to call and tell him what they think about the billboard, how they interpreted that month’s message or ask questions about it. “For years I never got any responses other than, like, friends who knew that I was behind it because it was so entirely anonymous. These quotes would just sort of appear in the sky and then disappear a month later,” the artist says.

With the billboard, Rubin can give life to the words of anyone who has a unique and interesting thought. Artist Matt Shain’s work was displayed on the Last Billboard from January to March 2014. The complex functions and dynamics of billboards, along with an admiration for Rubin’s work, attracted Shain to the project.

“It is strange and captivating how something so large as a billboard can be so easily ignored, but as soon as someone displays an unconventional message on one, it stands out and demands attention, which, ironically, is exactly what a billboard is supposed to do,” Shain says.

photo / food / beauty / liquor / rx were the words Shain chose to display on the billboard. “I had always thought there was something kind of dumb and funny about those words that are displayed on the outsides of Walgreens/CVS/Rite-Aid type drug stores. As if those five things are all one really needs to get by, bare essentials,” he explains.

According to Shain, the premise of his words were to “ask people to think about what our basic needs really are, how those needs are reduced through advertising and marketing and then sold back to us.”

Never being in Pittsburgh himself has not stopped Shain from enjoying the billboard: “I get a clear sense of how that one billboard has an impact on the community in which it’s installed. It makes me smile just to see it online. I hope it does the same for Pittsburgh, or at the very least causes some good head-scratching.”

Another group of artists who have had their work displayed on the billboard are Benjamin Kinsley, Jessica Langley and Jerstin Crosby. They created the Janks Archive, a collaborative project in which they investigate and collect insult humor, known as ‘jank’ to Alabama-native Crosby. Kinsley, Langley and Crosby all taught as adjunct professors in the art school at Carnegie Mellon University. There, they met Rubin and collaborated on projects together.

“We had been following the Last Billboard project, and we really love it, so when we were invited for the Pittsburgh Biennial we contacted Jon to see if we might be able to feature text from the Janks Archive during the month of September,” Kinsley says. They chose the following insult/compliment from Belfast, Northern Ireland that reads: you’re so ugly that / you should be in a / museum of modern art.

The motive for their choice was its ambiguous nature: “We all thought this would be an interesting fit for the Last Billboard as it can be taken as both an insult as well as a compliment, and functions as a sort of street criticism of contemporary art,” Kinsley says.

Without the billboard, there wouldn’t be a way for artists and everyday people to share their thoughts, questions and art in the sky. Without their words, the people of East Liberty and Pittsburgh wouldn’t be able to ponder the mysterious phrases and statements. But ultimately, without Jon Rubin, there would be no billboard, no art, and no magic. But as Rubin says, “It’s not my words. They really are the words of other folks.”