Stuart Sheldon's oldest son was in elementary school the day 20 children were gunned down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary. The idea of someone aiming an AR-15 at first-graders was the worst thing Sheldon could imagine, and when nothing changed in the massacre's aftermath, he responded the best way he knew how: through art.
Before the 2016 election, the Miami artist created a haunting video installation showing 20 colorful elementary- school chairs being shot up by a man with an AR-15. Now, with this year's election approaching, Sheldon has added another piece — one you might have already seen without realizing it.
On a 50-by-15-foot billboard Sheldon crowdfunded along I-95, the all-caps words "HOW WAS SCHOOL TODAY?" stand out against a black background. The O in "TODAY" is a target, and the question mark bears a drop of blood, juxtaposing gun violence against an everyday ritual of parenthood and turning a common question into something horrific.
"I wanted to take the rage and the emotion that I had earlier and just sort of try to crystallize it into something that wasn't quite as crazy as a classroom of bullet-ridden chairs," Sheldon says. "It's just part of the same conversation that's been ongoing for a few years and that, quite frankly, I hope I get to stop having soon."
The sign is part of the 50 State Initiative, one of the biggest collaborative public art projects in history. In the runup to November 6, artists across the nation have created and displayed unique billboards, each carrying a message. The initiative was organized by For Freedoms, a nonprofit that uses art to stimulate political discourse.
The message was left up to the artist. Billboards now in place across the country call attention to issues such as immigration, racial inequality, and police violence. When Sheldon was invited to participate, he knew which topic he'd tackle.
"My kids have shooter drills at school," he says. "They're 8 and 10. What the fuck, man? I just want a country where we don't have shooter drills in third grade."
Sheldon took to Kickstarter to cover the cost of leasing the billboard, writing about his sons — "smart, silly, inquisitive beings that I consider my greatest creations" — in the description. His fundraiser hit its $4,000 goal weeks ahead of its deadline, and the donations kept coming.
As of today, with three days remaining until the deadline, he's raised nearly $5,500. The sign will stay up through the month of October, just short of Election Day. His hope is that it grabs peoples' attention and motivates them as they head to the polls.
"I don't know how many people will be driving by my billboard over the two months on I-95 in a sort of rush hour traffic zone," Sheldon says. "But I would like to hope that hundreds or maybe even thousands of them feel compelled to vote and use this issue as one of the things they think about when they pull the lever."