"I'd be curious to know what truckers think," Jennifer Bolande tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
April 04, 2017 09:51 AM
Credit: Courtesy DesertX

Jennifer Bolande always thought it was bizarre to suddenly see an enormous slot machine or a house-sized basket of shrimp on highway billboards as she drove from her home in Los Angeles to her getaway cottage in Joshua Tree, California.

So when the UCLA art professor, sculptor and photographer was asked by the DesertX art project last year to come up with a desert artwork for a temporary display in the Coachella Valley, she immediately flashed on the billboards that blocked her view of the mountains along the Gene Autry Trail near Vista Chino.

She decided it was the perfect place to snap pictures of the mountains, rent space on several billboards and replace advertisements with blown-up photographs of the views that they blocked.

DesertX managers agreed and rented space on six billboards — three on each side of the highway — for two months, until April 30. Bolande’s art project, “Visible Distance/Second Sight,” is now drive-by art on a massive scale, appreciated and pondered over (albeit briefly) by truckers and road trippers, 24/7.

Jennifer Bolande
| Credit: Catherine Opie

Bolande purposely designed her project so that each billboard aligns perfectly with the section of landscape that it blocks, in a fashion similar to the Burma-Shave ads of yesteryear that used sequential advertising to be read from a moving vehicle.

“People really seem to like the finished product,” she tells PEOPLE, “but I’m wishing now that the speed limit was a bit slower on that road so that everyone would have more than a few seconds to think about what they’re seeing. I’m hoping that my photographs will draw attention to the current moment, no matter how fleeting.”

Credit: Courtesy DesertX

Bolande, 59, spent much of the early fall last year shooting pictures of the landscape blocked by billboards lining a small section of the highway, returning at different times of day to capture the changing light. Once she’d chosen six images, she sent them to Lamar Billboards and had them blown up to 48-by-14 feet, then installed.

Drivers quickly noticed her advertisements of the landscapes they’d been overlooking, says Bolande, who was flooded with calls and emails about the project.

Credit: Courtesy DesertX

“I’d be curious to know what truckers think — I love that it took people by surprise and made them more aware of their actual surroundings,” she tells PEOPLE.

“What’s the first thing people usually do when they stop to admire a landscape? They take a picture of it,” she says.

Credit: Courtesy DesertX

“But when you’re driving through, you’re always looking to the horizon. I was hoping to draw people’s attention to the experience of landscape — a gateway to experience the natural world without taking pictures — since everybody spends so much time today looking at their computer screens.”

Although numerous people who hate billboards have suggested that she take her project nationwide, Bolande says she is content to move on to other endeavors (a project on the disappearance of newspapers is in the works) and continue to enjoy her drives from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, no matter the view.

Credit: Courtesy DesertX

“Yes, billboards can be weird and incongruous,” she says, “and they’re almost impossible to block from your mind. You can’t help but think about what’s being presented. But they’re a part of our reality. So I’ll just continue to try and look past them the best that I can.”