Maybe you've seen them: a series of bright, colorful billboards with powerful messages of hope, in English and Spanish.
Like the one in Roslindale Square, big letters against a solid background: "It Ain't Easy, But Keep Going." The unsigned billboards have appeared in East Boston, Roslindale, Roxbury and Dorchester — Boston communities hit particularly hard by COVID-19.
They're the work of Gabriel Sosa. Sosa grew up in Miami, and is now a Visiting Lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. As an artist, teacher, and translator, we spoke with him about his art.
On how he landed on the billboard's message
Sosa: "It came kind of from a long process. I was scheduled to have a public art project at some point in the spring or summer of 2020. I had been thinking about the different ways that that could take place and all of a sudden the pandemic hit. And then I really came upon this idea of what can an artist offer right now? And I thought, well, art can offer space for critical reflection. It can offer a space for comfort and a space for solidarity. And the use of the words 'no es facíl' — growing up in Miami in a Cuban-American community, those words are so intelligible across Spanish-speaking countries. There's this kind of special flavor of solidarity with that. You can be standing in a long line and someone will look back at you, either in Miami or Havana and say, "Hey, no es facíl" and it's this way of saying 'Hey, I got you.' That's where that spirit came from and then it just seemed logical thinking about my bilingual-ness, my bicultural-ness, and the large Spanish-speaking population in Boston, that it made sense to offer it both in English and Spanish. 'No es facíl, it ain't easy.'"
On the decision to use billboards
Sosa: "It came from a place of my being interested in text in the public space. And this kind of ranged from things like bumper stickers, windows, signs, street signs, painted on asphalt. I thought to myself, well, what's something I can do that shares a message that considers social distancing that's visible. And then billboards sort of seem like a logical option. And there's also such a rich history of artists that have used billboards as a medium. I mean, there's Felix Gonzalez Torres. There's Barbara Kruger, Dread Scott. So it was really exciting for me to tap into that tradition, as well."
On how he was inspired by past billboard artwork
Sosa: "With my students at MassArt, I was talking about a couple of billboards by Felix Gonzalez Torres. There's one that he made which says "It's just a matter of time." And I think, you know, placing this in different places and just sort of that ambiguity of text, I think is really beautiful, really powerful, and that was something I was intending to strike as well. And just sort of the power that ambiguity can have, the power of ambiguity, interpretation, and allowing people just to take something from the work, whatever that may be. And, you know, as you had mentioned, these billboards are unsigned. I mean, my name isn't on there. And I'm hoping that people have come across them and kind of in this minute of confusion, wondering exactly what they are, have been able to take something valuable from them."
On the billboards being unsigned
Sosa: "I've had different conversations with folks in which, as you have seen, some of these billboards stand alone and then others are next to other billboards. Sometimes it's next to Geico or We Buy Ugly Houses or Chase Bank. Some people have been like, what is it, an ad? Am I being sold something? I love those moments of like, wait, you know, I don't know exactly what this is doing but I agree with the message. It means something to me, which is just what I was going for. I've gotten some Instagram messages from strangers and said, 'Hey, look, I came across this and this was really beautiful. It was just what I needed to hear right now. Thanks for doing this in our community.' You know, that's something to me, that it was just so heartwarming. It almost brings a tear to my eye just to know that these reach somebody."
On the temporal nature of billboard art
Sosa: "I appreciate that sense of of temporality. There's something serendipitous about it where you can just be walking down the street and encounter this message and it'll hopefully resonate with you in some way. And then you go there the next day and it's gone. And it's a great way to tackle it with that. Is something else coming in in its place? Is is it part of some storyline? But you look up and then, you know, you might just see Geico and you're like, what was that? So I love that element of chance that temporality brings."
On how art supports resilience and builds community
"I'm really kind of drawn to work that has some kind of intimacy toward it. You know, a lot of times we think, oh, well, an audience is going to be someone that's walking through a gallery and looking at paintings on a wall, or something like that. But that doesn't have to be the case. You can have an audience of one, or you can make something for an entire city. So an institution can offer something on a large scale. But I think, as artists, we can offer something on a really small scale, too."
This segment aired on March 1, 2021.
This segment aired on March 1, 2021. The audio for this segment is not available.