Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
An experiment in the absurd from Maplewood, New Jersey.
You've probably seen plenty of lawn signs in your day, especially if you live in the suburban United States, where they sprout like dandelions.
But you've probably never seen one that proclaims its own identity quite as boldly as this specimen from the New York suburb of Maplewood, New Jersey. Emblazoned on one side, the word "LAWN," with an arrow pointing down. On the other, the word "SIGN."
Behind the signs is Marcy Thompson, the founder of a local arts group called Studio B. The idea behind the ridiculously self-referential placards? To make people think about the whole lawn-sign phenomenon. And about art. Also to make them laugh.
Thompson, who moved to Maplewood seven years ago from New York City (where, I should disclose, our kids went to school together for a couple of years), says that she was immediately struck by the proliferation of signs in town—supporting political candidates, promoting environmental causes, celebrating high school graduates, and touting local businesses.
"They are kind of at the heart of a few things about the suburbs," she says. "People out here have a lot of opinions, and people obsess about their lawns. The funny thing that happens is that it's like a bumper sticker on your house. You're branding yourself with an opinion or a philosophy. It's like wearing a very loud T-shirt that says what you believe."
All those signs can sometimes translate, she says, into an odd form of neighborhood groupthink. "If you believe it or don't believe it, you feel pressure," she says. "It's like, 'OK, I should support it even if I don't know.' It's a classical anthropological dilemma: Are you in the group or not in the group?"
So Thompson and her Studio B partner, Jenny Turner Hall, decided to print up some absurdly meta signs and sell them for $20 apiece. The money would go to pay artists' fees at Studio B events and performances, which showcase the work of the many artists who live in Maplewood.
"It's part political statement and part advertisement," says Thompson. "In our wildest dreams, this was a conversation-starter to get people talking about what artists do and what they mean to the community. Maplewood is full of people who are doing amazing things, and they don't get enough credit and attention."
Thompson says they printed 25 signs, gave away some and sold the rest. It wasn't much of a success from a fund-raising perspective, but it did get people talking, even if the conversation at times got a little grumpy.
"I can't believe the trashy 'Art' LAWN signs I've seen lately around town," wrote one commenter on a local message board. "I wish I could attribute it to a new interpretation of Dada or even maybe De Stijl. But it's visual junk, visual trash, and is worse than the expected Contractor, Painter and other occasional political lawn signs. A new art movement in Maplewood should be minimalist: get rid of ALL those #$%^&! corrugated plastic signs on the wire frames!"
Thompson isn't taking any of it too seriously. "I really feel like it was really kind of a joke and it was fun," she says. She adds that while Studio B likely won't be printing more of the lawn signs, they're not done with their examination of this particular suburban culture. "There's a lot of ways we could uncover some of our strange habits as a community and look at them with fresh eyes," she says. "I would love to make sure that the arts are always in the conversation."