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Those odd billboards on I-95 at Academy Road are part of a huge national art project

Billboards designed to spark civic engagement before the elections have appeared in all 50 states.

Pardon Me, an anonymous billboard mounted in connection with an artist campaign to heighten civic engagement prior to the November elections. Photo: Becky Batcha
Pardon Me, an anonymous billboard mounted in connection with an artist campaign to heighten civic engagement prior to the November elections. Photo: Becky BatchaRead moreBecky Batcha

Billboards are going up all across the country, in all 50 states – not pumping the desire to drink Bud Light or hire a malpractice attorney but the desire to think, the desire to engage, the desire to question.

In what has been described as the biggest public-art project ever undertaken, the New York-based, artist-founded organization For Freedoms has sought out artists to create billboards coast-to-coast prior to the November midterm elections. The point is not partisan, say For Freedoms officials. It's to prompt reflection on what it means to be a citizen in the United States at this time.

In Little Rock, for instance, viewers can ponder a drippy-letter billboard that simply says, "Sad." In Houston, they can consider the question "Where do we go from here?" written across a desiccated, rocky landscape. In Harrisburg, drivers can see a pink billboard covered with "Grab 'Em by the Ballots." Notable artists include Carrie Mae Weems, For Freedoms cofounder Hank Willis Thomas, and Sanford Biggers.

Philadelphia is the home of the group's only anonymous work of billboard art, a pair of red-white-and-blue messages visible from I-95 north, just north of the Academy Road exit. One billboard says "PARDON ME" and the next, "ME PARDON ME.

A town hall at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at 6 p.m. Thursday (free with registration at will also focus on the For Freedoms project.

The artist behind the two Philadelphia billboards chose to remain anonymous to keep the focus on the message "and not on themselves," said Wyatt Gallery, billboard director for For Freedoms. "The goal of the billboards is to make the viewer think and question the messages, in the hopes of creating dialogue and new perspectives. We are posing questions, not giving answers or directions."

Gallery said the Pardon Me work is a collaboration between For Freedoms and a Philadelphia resident who hired a local Philadelphia design firm to work on the billboard idea. He had no further information on the mysterious artist-resident.

At Thursday's town-hall discussion, PAFA joins For Freedoms, the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center to present artists who will talk about the project and its wider meaning.

On hand will be Rina Banerjee, whose exhibition, "Make Me a Summary of the World," opens Oct. 27 at PAFA; Richard J. Watson, artist-in-residence and curator of exhibits at the African American Museum; and Shawn Theodore, artist and photographer with the Mural Arts Program. Banerjee and Watson do not have billboards in the project.

This past summer, some 200 young people worked with Mural Arts to create murals inspired by Franklin Roosevelt's famous 1941 speech on the four freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The four freedoms inspired artist Norman Rockwell to create his own now-famous images for Saturday Evening Post covers in 1943.

>> READ MORE: The surprisingly edgy relevance of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms"

Theodore and photographers Danna Singer and Daniel Traub then created images of the young artists in front of their murals, each representing a different freedom. A selection of those images now appears on more than 30 billboards scattered throughout the city. The project was undertaken in partnership with For Freedoms, which was cofounded by Thomas and artist Eric Gottesman in 2016.

The For Freedoms 50-State Initiative is almost entirely crowdfunded through Kickstarter.

Monica Zimmerman, educational director at PAFA, said the project and the town hall are precisely the kinds of activities that PAFA students should be exposed to.

"It makes perfect sense for us," she said, noting that "art activates all the freedoms."

Jane Golden, head of Mural Arts, said that For Freedoms' Thomas had sought Mural Arts' engagement. She said it fit well with Mural Arts' focus on citizenship, civic engagement, and vesting artists and citizens with the power "to create their own narrative."

The students were inspired by the Rockwell images, she said, and determined "how they could reinterpret those ideas and what they mean at this point in history."