Roadside Silhouettes

by Harmen Liemburg

Throughout the western United States, the lonesome motorist will often find the endless roadside adorned with large silhouette signage, typically celebrating traditional elements of the country he is traveling through.

By far the most popular motif is the proud cowboy or rancher driving a line of cattle in front of his trotting horse. Many others celebrate the myth of settlement, with heavy oxen toiling away, pulling the settlers' wagon on the yet unpaved roads of the Wild West. 

The silhouettes are made from weatherproof iron plates that were constructed using cutting torches or similar tools. Creating a graphic composition out of one sheet of material defines its own rules. If the maker is a purist, he will try to balance the positive and negative elements in an elegant way, without essential parts falling out, similar to traditional paper cuts found in Europe, China, or Mexico. But this skill is mastered by only a few patient and experienced craftsmen. More often, in order to attach smaller elements such as letters to a structural frame, the more flexible, additive strategy of welding is used.

As with any good composition, the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. For example, the New Mexico Ranch Rodeo sign—found on the road between Albuquerque and Roswell—intertwines various indigenous elements in an unusual and charming way. Here, the herd of ranch cattle is weaving through blooming yucca cacti, suggesting a high-desert landscape in spring. Typical Navajo Nation triangular rugweaving motifs are combined with elegant cursive deformed by the rugged material. Here is where rural folklore becomes Graphic Ranch Art.

Harmen Liemburg is an Amsterdam-based graphic designer, printmaker, and journalist.