Local Arts

What you don’t know about that eye-catching artsy billboard you just passed Charlotte

Amanda Foshag, oil
Amanda Foshag, oil ArtPop

It’s art, up there above the treeline, amid exit signs for I-85 or maybe the mattress store ads.

And the person responsible, Wendy Hickey, would like to tell you more about “her” artists.

As the founder of ArtPop Street Gallery, launched in 2014, she’s helped kickstart the careers of dozens. And even when one of them – and “I fall in love with every one of them,” she says – has an established following, her work nets them a bigger audience than would have been possible in a traditional gallery, she says.

Charlotte-based artist Scott Partridge, part of the ArtPop Class of 2017, calls it “a big stamp of validation. The ArtPop billboard has functioned exactly as a billboard should – introducing or reintroducing my work to many people.”

Yes, Hickey’s gallery consists of billboards. Yes, they can be more than updates on how many miles stand between you and the next McDonald’s. Yes, it’s a wall-less gallery found along interstates, at busy intersections, even on center-city newspaper racks – unlikely places that benefit from a jolt of whimsy – and now not only in original-site Charlotte, but also in 14 cities and nine states, Nevada to Florida.

For 18 years, Hickey sold billboard advertising for Adams Outdoor Advertising – and wondered how the company could make use of those massive, 672-square-foot roadside spaces when they were empty. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people saw those spaces every day.

Hickey could’ve suggested anything. But “I had an epiphany”: Art was the obvious choice.

“For me, the creative part – not the sales part – was where I got turned on,” says Hickey, 51, of her job. “I loved helping a client develop an effective message. I love good design.

“My original vision for ArtPop was to serve the artist ... A byproduct of that was introducing the public to art.”

When working for Adams in Pennsylvania in 2002, she had served on a local arts council and became enthralled by the artists she met. Many felt uncomfortable touting themselves. And here was Hickey – with occasionally blank outdoor canvases that were 14 feet tall by 48 feet long.

katherine kirchner, photography
Katherine Kirchner, photography ArtPop

There wasn’t a downside to her dream.

Hickey enjoys photography, but does not consider herself an artist “whatsoever.”

What she is, is a collector. “I have a ridiculous amount of art. My home looks like an art gallery. Some women buy clothes and shoes. I buy art.”

She still has the first “real” art (meaning: original) she ever acquired, which was from a graphic designer at Adams Outdoor Advertising. It was the first “A” project the graphic designer had gotten in art school, and she gifted it to Hickey upon her move from South Carolina to Pennsylvania.

But that’s not the only art in her home that comes with a backstory. “If you come to my house, I’m going to tell you the story of every single one of my paintings,” Hickey says. “It’s like asking a Southerner how they’re doing; you just aren’t going to get a quick answer.”

You’re not going to have a quick conversation with Hickey about her ArtPop artists, either. Her favorite subject is the artists whose careers she’s helped cultivate. “I am such a geek for my artists.” (And, it should be noted, she’s much happier talking about artists than about herself.)

The feeling is mutual. Partridge says, “It’s clear whenever you talk to Wendy that her passion for art and artists is a major driving force in her life.”

hassan kirkland, mixed media
Hassan Kirkland, mixed media ArtPop

Partridge has been a full-time freelance artist since 2006 – long before he saw his work blown up on a billboard behind Legion Brewing Company in Plaza Midwood. His income sources include the stores and galleries where he sells his work; commissions for painting, illustration and graphic design; commercial art projects; and some licensing and online sales.

But Partridge is not a salesman. ArtPop has been, to him, like getting a big promotion at work. It’s the most effective (and least expensive!) marketing an artist could hope for. “I'm not naturally outgoing,” he says. “So, selling myself is a challenge. I use email and social media as buffers.”

But a patron called after seeing Partridge’s work – birds, a favorite subject of his – standing guard over Legion. The patron’s last name was Crane, and he was opening a new business. He commissioned Partridge to paint a crane, which he could then use as his logo and on all his collateral. “It was an art job and a business job,” Hickey says. “And all because of a billboard.”

Hickey makes it easy for potential patrons to find the artist they’re seeking. The ArtPop website is listed on every billboard. All a commuter or passerby has to do is visit the website, find the artist’s contact information and get in touch. The original work may be available. And if not, prints might be – or a commission.

“Much of the ArtPop work is very affordable,” Hickey says. “People are often surprised by how affordable an original work of art can be.” (She says she’s seen work from $39 to $10,000: a lot of price points.)

Hickey has been in Charlotte for five years – a long stretch for the self-described “gypsy soul.” She was a military kid who lived all over for the first 16 years of her life – West Virginia, Hawaii, California, Japan and South Carolina twice.

When Adams Outdoor Advertising began asking Hickey to move every few years, she was always ready. She began her career at Adams in Florence, S.C. and then moved to the Pocono Mountains, Penn., followed by Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, Mich. And finally, Charlotte.

Adams, a company that has donated millions of dollars in ad space to help artists build their careers, also inadvertently launched Hickey on a new career.

meg green malvasi, mobile photography
Meg Green Malvasi, mobile photography ArtPop

Though she left Adams in 2015 to work for RBX Media, she had continued as ArtPop’s part-time, unpaid executive director. Now she’ll be going full-time with ArtPop, and grant support from Reemprise (her second) will also fund board training and more for the organization. (Hickey said she felt ArtPop was official when it became a nonprofit and she became its director. Now that she’ll start getting a salary, she said it feels “extremely official.”)

ArtPop owes its success to a number of organizations, she said, including the Arts & Science Council and Knight Foundation, and to its devoted volunteers. The group has been 100 percent operated by volunteers since its founding.

“As a creative, my career is unpredictable by nature,” Partridge says. But ArtPop has 205 alumni. That’s 205 people who have a little more predictability (and stability) in their lives.

Wendy Hickey would love to talk to you about that.

ArtPop 2018

The artists who’ll be on those billboards, beginning Jan. 8, in 11 counties and spanning Rock Hill to Statesville: Amanda Foshag, Arthur Rogers Jr., Bailey Wingler, Elizabeth Bradford, Carmella Jarvi, Cortney Frasier, Donna Downey, Eva Crawford, Gary Abramov, Gordon James, Hassan Kirkland, Hilary Siber, Holly Spruck, Julia Lawing, Katherine Kirchner, Maria Senkel, Meg Green Malvasi, Monique Luck, Pauline Lamal and Stella Yang.

Hickey gets about 115 to 150 applicants each year for just 20 ArtPop spots in Charlotte. This year, a panel made up of Hickey, two ArtPop alumni, representatives from Adams Outdoor Advertising, the Arts and Science Council, Center City Partners and McColl Center for Art + Innovation chose the artists. ArtPop artists have represented nearly every genre of visual art – painting to wood, photography to fiber.

Hickey and ArtPop are eligible for a $50,000 “Rare Life Award” (Hickey’s nominated in the “Devotion” category) from Eagle Rare Bourbon. Visit eaglerarelife.com before Dec. 6 to vote.