A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Dallas artist Jason Willaford repurposes billboards into thought-provoking vinyl wall hangings
Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center is showing an exhibit of the artist’s work titled “Vinyl Exposed,” through Aug. 22, with a family-friendly Make and Take program planned for Saturday.
Jason Willaford is bringing a whole new meaning to the vinyl comeback.
Although his work resembles that of mid-20th century master abstract painters, the Dallas-based artist uses thread and petroleum-based vinyl instead of a paint brush and oil, transforming billboards that have been vandalized, damaged or just taken down when they’ve run their course into quilted wall hangings.
“I like the idea of this shiny, sort of plastic, petroleum-based material. It’s a more modern material … with this old way of putting it together – quilting. I like that juxtaposition,” Willaford said, standing among several of his repurposed billboards in Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center, where his exhibit “Vinyl Exposed” is on view through Aug. 22.
While viewers might be drawn by the bright colors and glossy sheen of the vinyl wall hangings, a closer look will allow them to appreciate the layers – both figurative and literal – of Willaford’s work, said Steve Boyd, exhibits manager at Oklahoma contemporary. The Florida State University graduate’s vinyl collages comment on issues like the excesses of American consumer culture, the overwhelming flow of information in the Internet age and the rapid pace of technological advancement.
“Whenever you first walk in, it’s ‘wow.’ … Photographs don’t do it justice,” Boyd said. “Even if you’re looking at it from straight-on, if you walk over here (to the side), it’s something completely different. You can really see the depth and the texture.”
Although his medium is more modern than, say, oil paint, it also evokes nostalgia shared with vinyl albums, vinyl furniture and vinyl car seats, and Boyd said people will be able to relate to Willaford’s billboard-based work, which is reminiscent of pop art from the late 1950s.
An ordinary drive with his teenage daughter, Camille, now 17, turned into an artistic inspiration when Willaford spotted a Whole Foods billboard that had been tagged with spray paint, turning the slogan “organic land ahead” into “vacant land ahead.” He wondered what happened to billboards that had been vandalized or discarded – and then began to ponder the future of the oversized signs themselves.
“I started thinking about technologically how fast we’re moving … and how billboards will be obsolete in another 10 or 15 years and how it’s something we grew up with traveling in cars and on road trips and making up and like playing games with them. My daughter doesn’t look out the window anymore, she just looks at the cell phone,” Willaford said,
“They’ve influenced artists: You look at (Oklahoma-bred Ed) Ruscha and different artists that like traveled and their work was about traversing the United States. … Look at people driving now, they’re looking at their phones. I mean, that’s one of the biggest problems we have is people driving and texting. They’re barely looking at the road let alone off the road 200 feet at a billboard.”
He called up the sign company that had put up the now-ruined billboard and learned that the heavy-duty vinyl banners are just thrown away after they’re taken down. So, he arranged to buy several discarded billboards, including, as luck would have it, the tagged one that inspired him in the first place.
“This piece hung in my studio for two years before I ever bought my sewing machine and actually started quilting and figured out how I was going to quilt everything together,” he said, adding he paid about $1,000 for a refurbished industrial sewing machine.
“It was kind of a leap of faith because you don’t really know if it’s going to work if you’re gonna like what you end up with.”
Originally from Florida, Willaford was able to combine pieces of that tagged billboard with another depicting the burned-out Texas Governor’s Mansion into his first vinyl piece, “Vacant.”
“My dad lives near this golf course in Florida, and they closed this golf course. And in a matter of like three years, nature had completely taken it back over,” he said. “It’s just kind of funny to me how we do all this construction and everything and how quickly nature takes it back, how important we think we are on this planet as people and how really insignificant we are.”
He began exploring his new medium with a series called “Re-claimed Icons,” letting the content of the billboards he bought influence his work. One of the exhibit’s highlights is an installation of pillowy three-dimensional fish repurposed from a Sam’s Club billboard.
“Their logo is ‘in business for small business,’ which was totally hilarious to me because I had lived in a town, Silver City, where a Super Walmart came in and basically shut down the Main Street and put everybody out of business,” he said. “I thought it was just ironic … so I came up with this idea with these little ‘(Finding) Nemo’ fish, where you’ve got all these small fish and then this giant predatory fish to kind of symbolize that.”
His latter works don’t take their cues from the content of the billboards and are more abstract.
“I’ve started just cutting shapes out of like five or six different layers (of vinyl), sewing them together, and like cutting this kind of visceral aspect of a skin and pulling it apart and revealing what’s underneath and sewing that back,” he said. “There’s this whole idea that nothing’s sacred and I’m taking pieces and flipping them over or cutting them up, not necessarily because I don’t like them but because I do like them.”
One of the first works visitors see when they walk into the Oklahoma City gallery is “Info-Nation Overload,” huge data cloud that spills off the wall and into the floor.
“It’s kind of inspired by like ‘the cloud,’” he said. “I think there is the evolution like in the last 60 years of really moving quickly because of all this information being thrown at us. So, there’s an evolution process happening with us of how we think, how we see, how we work and do things.”
Education coordinator Andrea Wijkowski said Willaford has changed the way Oklahoma Contemporary is teaching youngsters in its summer break camps by donating 10 to 20 yards of the billboard vinyl he has reclaimed to the gallery.
Campers have used the vinyl to create two-dimensional collages and replicate Willaford’s 3-D fish installation. On Saturday afternoon, the gallery will offer a free Make and Take program where children and their parents can tour the exhibit, learn about his process and then create a collage using the same material.
“It starts the conversation about the recycling and the repurposing of things you use every day. You know, ‘all these other billboards, they just go in the trash, and what else can you use in your artwork?’ Or ‘how many plastic water bottles do you use and do you recycle them? Can you use them for other things?’” Wijkowski said.
Jason Willaford’s ‘Vinyl Exposed’
When: Through Aug. 22
Where: Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center at State Fair Park, 3000 General Pershing Blvd.
Make and Take program: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the gallery. Free. Children must be accompanied by an adult.
Information: 951-0000 or oklahomacontemporary.org.