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Obama, California (Pop 55, Elev 60)

September 22, 2008

On the way through the tiny hamlet of Olema, California on Friday, my eye caught a sign at the edge of the village which looked just like the kind of sign you'd find at any city limit in America, except instead of "Olema, California (Pop 55, Elev 60)", it read, "Obama, California (Pop 55, Elev 60)." My friend and I drove onwards towards the coast, thinking, "what a terrific trompe-d'oeil."

We weren't the only people to notice the sign. The next day, the local paper, The Marin Independent Journal, ran an article about the sign.

"Olema resident Kelly Emery's sign of the times is stirring up a bit of small-town political excitement," wrote reporter Jim Staats. "The 48-year-old Emery - a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama for president - installed a road sign outside her Olema Cottages bed and breakfast on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard this week that mimics other town limit signs, except that it renames the area "Obama.""

According to the article, the sign served, at least in the mind of its creator, as much an artistic purpose as a political one. ""It's really just an artistic expression," Emery is quoted as saying in the article. "There's something about his name that plays tricks on you. I love our Olema sign and it would make me think graphically of Obama and I just thought it'd be fun to make a sign that would hopefully make people do a double-take."

This morning, as my friend and I headed back from the coast following a weekend of camping, we were dismayed to see that the Obama sign had disappeared. We wondered whether an angry Republican had taken it down, or whether a selfish tourist or Obama wonk had stolen it.

We talked about its merits as an art project versus a political statement and decided that its cheekily precise mimicking of a typical U.S. city sign made it function on both artistic and political terms -- political, because it trumpeted the name of the presidential candidate to passersby; artistic, because it did it in such an unusual, eye-catching and humorous way that it both made fun of election season over-the-top political campaigning methods while contrastingly claiming Obama as an inherent part of the tiny tourist town.

I called the B&B when I got home to find out what became of the sign. The reality was more prosaic than we'd thought: "I had to take it down because it was in the county right of way," Emery told me in a resigned voice. Emery has no plans to reinstall the sign on her property because she says no one will see it there, though she might erect it elsewhere in the town of Olema if her fellow citizens allow it. I asked Emery what made her put the sign up in the first place. She responded: "My intention was just to make people smile."

I wonder if anyone in a place like Kansas City will attempt the same on behalf of Senator John McCain? McCainsas City (Pop 146,866 Elev 740), anyone?

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