August 12th, 2016. Amy Masters is making a burger. On Wednesday, she thought about cutting the meat with a five-horsepower, 24" industrial bandsaw, but because of all of the steel belts inside, she decided against it. Too dangerous. Later that week, in the Northside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Masters carves out the soft middle of the meat with X-Acto knifes instead, then drills holes through it and bolts it to one of the 16-foot pieces of bread that stands nine feet tall on the corner of 824 Chestnut Street. Masters bends a three-foot tube of onion, while the lettuce dries in the sun. The green, BEHR latex paint would dry quicker that way. When completed, Amy Masters' burger, "Northside Road Side," will measure 200 feet in surface area, constructed of recycled tires, rags, sheets of plywood, 2x4s, plastic bowls & dead flowers. Each one of its six-inch long sesame seeds catches the light and the attention of motorists heading down Chestnut St. towards the highway. Maybe they'll take a picture, or pose with the enormous snack. It's unexpected. It's fun. And that's how you get people to stop.
"I'm from Kansas and I used to go to roadside attractions all the time," Masters recalls. "They're huge in the midwest, cause that's how you get people to stop." After completing her Masters in Fine Arts with a concentration in Fiber from Arizona State University in 2013, Masters began a series of public sculptures that evoked that sense of "the stop," the acceptance and participation of art in a natural environment. "The reason why I started making roadsides was because of Gatlinburg, TN," Masters continues. "I was making these objects and placing them in a gallery, and there's something about the white cube that's not quite what I wanted my work to be; That's not where I see it actually existing. You had to actually direct people to engage your work. Whereas you take it outside, or you take it out of the context of the white cube, it kinda just happens on its own. Especially public art."
Outside Tennessee, Masters invested further in this concept of public sculptures as sources of engagement and fun for those who participated. Whether it was a five hole mini-golf course in Raleigh, North Carolina or a 70x30-foot rag rug in Gatlinburg, these projects dismantled the lofty ideals of the gallery in exchange for those that were closer to the ground. More communal. "I don't look at art as this elitist thing that people can't share," says Masters. "I like to create work that people can understand and people would like to actually help me create. I wanted to go beyond the idea of it being art and really push the engagement and push the play and roadside attractions do that."
The space to create this next attraction was provided by Neu Kirche and Fallow Grounds for Sculpture, an annual public art residency program in Pittsburgh that focuses on transforming vacant lots in economically challenged areas into one month-long artist studios. 824 Chestnut Street would be become Masters' studio, in the neighborhood of Northside, less than a mile from Interstate 279, an eight-lane highway spur that divides Allegheny County. "If you walk across the street over the highway, it's world's nicer. You can tell that its been in a slow decline," Masters describes. "One side has all the restaurants, all the industry, and the other side is just houses falling down, essentially." Making her way through its jagged arrangement of empty lots and freckled brick buildings, Amy Masters walked through Northside, her new home for the next month, thinking about what to build.
"I was trying to get a handle of what I actually wanted to make," Masters recalls. "Because I do that when I actually start to create. I try to become part of the community in some capacity, in order to make work that actually fits with them." What fit, was Northside Sandwich Week, a ten-day competition for local restaurants in the area to vie for the title of "Sandwich King." And yes, there's a crown. It's plastic. "Full garb." Masters confirms. "It's great, and it was such a funny event. There was a sixth grade band that played, you put a name on a card and slip it in a box, and by the end, they tally and that's how you get to be the Sandwich King." It was at this event in the summer of 2016 when the idea of building a giant sandwich, a burger, began to take hold in Masters' imagination. "There was something about it that struck me, you could see the civic pride in this event and I was always going to have an element of that in the work - and just through conversations with my roommate, it became one of those things: Why isn't it a sandwich?"
Over the next month, Masters and her team of artists and builders, some of them neighbors from the community, constructed the giant burger to the amused bewilderment of onlookers. "I remember this one woman," Masters recalls, "She was kind of gruff, and she walked by and she asked, 'What is that? What are you making?' And I said, 'I'm making a sandwich.' Simple. And then she said, 'You're making a sandwich?' And then she put her head back and she just started laughing." Outside of the white cube of traditional museum spaces, Masters' sculpture was free of artifice. Approachable. "I was just there, building. And because I was outside from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every single day, they saw me and I became a neighbor, essentially. I think it's important when you create works like that to become part of the neighborhood, because that's their home. I couldn't imagine not wanting to meet them. It was more about people coming up and sitting with me and sharing their stories."
"Northside Road Side" was completed on August 26th, 2016, and stands today in Pittsburgh. Masters allowed the community to rename it as many times as they pleased, with nicknames such as "The World's Largest Hamburger," "The Giant Cheeseburger," and "Sammich." There are no ticket-takers or record of who comes to visit. No gift shop. Its legacy is captured in pictures on people's phones and barber shop chats between neighbors. "Have you stuck your head through it yet?" If you pose just right, by sticking your head inside one of the structure's four portholes, it looks as if you're being eaten by this creation. People become a part of it. At the center of America's fascination with roadside attractions, is the desire to become one with the exhibit, the experience. To become art. Mimicking the tiny arms of the 100-ton T-Rex in Cabazon, CA with their friends, or hugging their great-grandfather inside "Big Brutus," the world's second-largest steam shovel near West Mineral, KS. "I went all the time," says Masters. "Generations of photos of our family have been to Big Brutus. We still go. I mean, every time I go home, I still go. It's a big part of our family."
On someone's phone right now, next to the pictures of their cousin's high-school graduation or a mirror they liked in a model home, might be a picture of them pretending to be eaten by a giant hamburger in Northside, Pennsylvania. A 16-foot tall hamburger that has now become part of their generations of photos, of their history. Perhaps they drove past it with a friend from college after getting lost trying to get back onto Interstate 279. Perhaps they both looked at each other, after realizing what it was, and the meat was made of recycled tires. "Let's take a picture," one of them would suggest. Because it's unexpected. Because it looks like fun. Because I'd like to remember I was here with you.
That's how you get people to stop.