Drivers heading north on Kedzie might do a double take when they get to a billboard just past Fulton on the west side of the street. Partly concealing a boarded-up two-flat, the image juxtaposes a photograph of shopping-bag-laden mallgoers with a Chinese symbol printed above the word “Happiness.” The diptych–one of three that can be found on 60 billboards scattered across town, predominantly on the west and south sides–slyly probes the effects of mass advertising in neighborhoods where liquor ads predominate and residents have little purchasing power.

“What we were really after was the ironic stance of using a consumerist medium to critique consumerism, the culture of planned obsolescence and disposable items,” says artist and Columbia College professor Accra Shepp, who led a team of Columbia graduate students and high school students at the west-side Academy of Communications and Technology Charter School in creating the billboards. “We’re just hoping to get good community feedback.”

The project grew out of a public-art seminar that Shepp taught in Columbia’s photography department last fall, just after he relocated from New York. As part of the seminar, the five Columbia students hooked up with ten ACT teens through a program coordinated by Columbia’s Office of Community Arts Partnerships. The schoolkids “were really interested in the power of found objects, so they collected things off the street,” says Shepp. Their detritus was then paired with photos shot by the grad students.

Earlier this year Shepp showed five of the resulting designs to executives at Viacom Outdoor, which has sponsored–and advertised–Columbia cultural events for several years. Shepp was “amazed” that the largest outdoor advertising company in North America, with more than 100,000 billboards, agreed to donate space, starting in March, as part of its public-service programming.

“They were actually quite open, very supportive,” he says. “People at Viacom see the same deleterious effects of consumerism that we do, even though they’re in the belly of the beast, as it were. What they were concerned with was liability–how anything with a political message in this time of extreme paranoia would open them up to lawsuits.” That had its positive aspects, says Shepp, because it sparked class discussions about artistic compromise.

For example, the ACT kids wanted to use a found Trivial Pursuit card, one of whose six answers was “Atom Bomb.” That was nixed by Viacom, so the team altered the line to read “Los Alamos” instead; another line was changed to “Duct Tape.” It was, says Shepp, “enough to draw people’s minds to current events.” The card, bearing as another of its answers “All-American,” was matched with a photograph of sidewalk shoppers–potential targets, perhaps, engaged in their own trivial pursuits in the face of terrorist threats.

Shepp, who’s 40, has taught at the International Center of Photography, Wellesley College, and Columbia University. His own work, which he says “explores the human relationship with the natural world,” has been shown in solo exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Whitney as well as in Colombia and Italy.

In New York Shepp directed a variety of community-based artworks, including a series of projects in which he worked with schoolkids to create flags that were then displayed in public places. In 2001 he organized “Parade of Flags,” in which about 60 children and teens from five schools marched through the East Village on Martin Luther King Day bearing flags honoring King and other civil rights leaders. The 2002 parade was cut short by rain, but Shepp hopes to reprise it in Manhattan and initiate a Chicago version indoors at the Field Museum in 2004.

Over the last decade Shepp has developed a method of printing his photographs, mostly portraits, on large tree leaves, evoking relationships between nature and artifice, permanence and ephemerality, light and shadow. Beginning in 1998, he spent a year on a Fulbright fellowship in Indonesia; there he created most of the photographs featured in an exhibit of his work currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center.

“A leaf is something so transparent as to be invisible, just as nature is in our existence but for all practical purposes is nonexistent,” says Shepp. “Leaves grow and die, people grow and die. We’re here at the same time. I’m fitting human figures into leaves so the leaf is taking the measure of a human being.”

At 5:30 PM on Saturday, May 10, a free bus running from Art Chicago 2003 at Navy Pier to the Stray Show at 1418 N. Kingsbury will swing past some of the billboards, which are up through May 31. Shepp and several of the Columbia students will be on board. They’ll also have a booth at the Navy Pier fair, showing the images that didn’t make it onto billboards. Admission to the fair is $12; call 312-587-3300 for more information. “Leaf Work” continues at the cultural center, 78 E. Washington (312-744-6630), through May 11.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.