Scavenger hunt billboard tour created to combat pandemic anxieties and improve mental health

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Sean Rothermel is no artist.

In fact, the work he’s done since graduating from Penn State University has been focused on business and environmental advocacy.

But when the pandemic began, the 28-year-old started working remotely from his Lawrenceville home, which sits directly across from a billboard. When he looked out his bedroom window, he saw an opportunity to combat the anxieties brought on by COVID-19.

Mr. Rothermel quit his job and shifted his focus toward transforming that billboard along with more than two dozen others throughout Pittsburgh into an art project scavenger hunt. 

Mr. Rothermel partnered with Lamar Advertising Co., which has a stake in over 360,000 billboards across the U.S. and Canada, on a project called “April in Paris of Appalachia.” He then channeled his anxiety and stress into 27 different art pieces that have been on display since the start of July, with hopes to provide Pittsburgh residents with an activity to take their minds off the chaos of the pandemic.

“A lot of that work was really me trying to work through my own ideas about what was going on with the pandemic and in the world,” Mr. Rothermel said. “There’s nothing that I can do about the external situation and the things that happen to me … but what I can do is sort of control what I do.”

Mr. Rothermel designed the billboard art with common themes of love and togetherness and resilience. He created an online map for drivers to follow along and find each display according to street names and coordinates. Mr. Rothermel said it was important that he not put photos of the billboards on his website to encourage participants to go see the paintings and photographs for themselves.

The website also features a link on its homepage to resources for those struggling with their mental health. “Pandemics are hard. If you are struggling to cope mentally/emotionally and live in Pennsylvania, the Department of Human Services has a list of helpful resources here,” the site reads.

Mr. Rothermel said he had never struggled with mental health in the past, but in May sought out professional help after the combined stress of the pandemic and isolation created the “perfect storm” that became too heavy to bear.

“Doing something like this has been really helpful to put my mind in the right place,” he said. “From what I’ve been seeing and from talking to people … it seems like everyone is exhausted in some way. So I wanted to put that resource out there because I know I certainly benefited from that type of thing and there’s definitely still a stigma to [mental health].”

The billboards range from simple conversation starters like a stick figure saying “hi” to messages that someone loves you. They are on display in neighborhoods including Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Larimer, Oakland, the Strip District, Mount Washington, South Side, Polish Hill, Swissvale and the North Shore through the end of July.

“It’s very much about the experience and giving people something to do, even if it’s just for a few hours,” Mr. Rothermel said. “Just giving people a way to get back into the present moment but in a way that you’re not stressed out about the virus or the economy.

“I’m from Pittsburgh. I’ve lived here all my life. I love Pittsburgh and I thought it would be really cool to do something that no one else has right now. This is a Pittsburgh-exclusive thing.”

Alexis Johnson: ajohnson@post-gazette.com and Twitter @alexisjreports.



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