Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Erica Hauser paints nostalgic snippets of roadside attractions and ephemera.
In another life, Erica Hauser might have been a billboard painter, shinnying up scaffolding to lay down precise line and swaths of color to sell products to the riders in cars passing below. That kind of job doesn’t exist much anymore. Instead, Hauser says, “I’m creating my own little billboards.”
She’s spent the last decade or so cataloguing the overlooked stalwarts lining highways and side roads in the Hudson Valley, where she lives and paints. She looks for sun-bleached signs scrawled on the sides of barns. An ice cream shop in Haverstraw caught her eye; so did a gas pump in Pound Ridge and an ice machine in Beacon, rusted up the sides.
Other works are inspired by ephemera. She finds inspiration in clippings cut from old women’s magazines, car catalogs, or road maps from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. She also credits the photographer Rudy Burckhardt as an inspiration. Hauser also paws through photographs at local historical societies to glean a sense of what the streets once looked like. “It allows me to inhabit that place for awhile,” she says.
Some scenes are fairly faithful reproductions of how Hauser saw them firsthand; others, lifted from their environments, are more abstract odes to bygone eras, and it’s easy to imagine them being anywhere: at a sleepy intersection in any drive-through town. “Many of the places have a story,” Hauser says, “but you don’t have to know the story in order to respond to it.”
Hauser’s scenes appear to be in a state of suspended animation—neither scrubbed off the map nor thriving. They have a stark quality, and gauzy colors. The combination of faded and bright colors and chipped, irregular edges mirror memories themselves, imperfect and easy to romanticize.
Some of the relics are still out on the streets, and others have made their way to Hauser’s studio. She found an out-of-service phone booth in a local antiques shop. At first, she drove away, but, she says, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” So Hauser returned, bought it, and hauled it around in her pickup truck, looking for the right spot. It spent the winter in a friend’s yard; they built snowmen inside it. For the last two years, it’s been in her gallery.
The phone booth is a fixture. But as some of the other signs fade or shops shutter, Hauser holds even faster to her depictions. “I started to value it more,” she says. “I was able to keep it through the painting.” As things became harder to find, she adds, “It’s a strange feeling, but also kind of satisfying—like I was able to get a little piece of that.” She pauses. “It’s a way of remembering things for myself.”