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Joel Varland's garden variety politics
Joel Varland at his Parkside political garden - photo by Robin Wright Gunn

THOSE once-ubiquitous political campaign signs are disappearing from most front lawns and intersections. But at Joel Varland’s house on 49th Street, they sprout around his place like weeds. Or, as Varland puts it, like wildflowers.

Varland has installed an estimated 100 political signs on the front and side yards of his family’s Parkside bungalow, “starting with the presidential elections and going all the way down to local competitions.”

“They are really beautiful,” says Varland. “I consider what I’m doing in my front yard to be a kind of garden. A garden of signs.”

Varland’s installation represents the whole political spectrum, arranged according to “a collaging of signs and colors” rather than based on political point of view. “All presidential candidates are represented except for Giuliani. I never did see any of his signs show up here.”

Varland has been collecting signs since the presidential primary on Feb. 5. “I went out at midnight and collected them. The other half I collected at midnight of the general election, right after the result was announced.”

He gathered his sign media only from intersections and public spaces, with none from private lawns.

The installation went up last Wednesday, at first as a massive collection of signs that Varland later rearranged into a serpentine pattern. “I wanted to have it installed when people woke up in the morning, but I just didn’t have the energy at two a.m.,” says Varland.

Beginning with an Obama sign on the west side of his house, the parade of signs meanders from the porch to the side yard, loops around a flower bed, then jumps the sidewalk to the curbside tree lawn. The signs march across the front of the Varland lot to its easternmost corner to the lawn itself, where it curves in an extended backward S toward the house, culminating in a sign from Al St. Lawrence’s re-election bid.

The predominant color scheme is blue. Accents of yellow, green, and white are provided mostly by signs from local races. The only red sign is also the only issue-based placard, urging voters to “Stop Global Warming.”

The number of signs representing each candidate is based entirely on their availability during Varland’s collection efforts. McCain and Romney’s signs are used most frequently, with only two Obama signs in the installation.

Varland, a SCAD professor in foundations and sculpture, used the signs for class discussions on logos and branding. The presidential candidate with the best brands won the last two elections, he says, admiring the effectiveness of the Obama sunrise “O” and George Bush’s “W.”

As for public responses, “I’ve had people come by, and you can see they were very upset at first. Then they take a close look and see it’s from both campaigns. They look a little longer and get a big smile on their face. It seems to deflate all the boasting that goes on with those signs,” Varland says.

“I’ve had people from the city come by, it seems to me, with the intention of hassling me,” he says. “When I tell them I am planting a garden of signs, they nod and say, ‘all right,’ in that great Southern way.” cs

Joel Varland’s installation at 1214 E. 49th St. will be in place for “maybe another week, until it feels right to come down.”