That Darn Sign

50 feet of controversy, creativity,  and community connection.


First created in 2009, the increasingly iconic, periodically contentious, and undeniably prominent SONOMAWOOD sign erected on the Plaza horseshoe to herald the Sonoma International Film Festival was never intended to become a festival beacon or a continuing agenda item for the Sonoma City Council.

Rather, it is a Common Core performance math task, teaching the Pythagorean theorem, angle concepts, and construction skills to students from Creekside High School. But that is not the intention, either.

It is, in fact, a lesson in First Amendment rights, especially when someone attaches pirate flags and paints the ‘D’ pink or changes the letters to spell “POOL” on the site where the Sonoma Valley High School pool once lived. But that is also not the intention.

It is the foundation for a four-week high school unit about Hollywood, which includes visits from directors, filmmakers, and various SIFF personnel. But, well, you get the idea.

What the 10-foot-tall, 50-foot-long SONOMAWOOD sign does, along with the other artwork created for the festival by Creekside High School students, is connect those students to their community. As SIFF volunteer Skip Olinger said last year, “Helping kids express their ideas is fundamental to the mission of the film festival. The sign is the actualization of a project by kids who otherwise don’t get much chance to see their ideas come to life.”

Along with that darn sign, this year students are busy creating an 8- foot cage, giant environmental farm animals, venue flags, and wooden donation boxes for the festival. The Creekside kids’ motto appears to be, “Got an idea? Sure, we can do that.” Collectively, they’re the Rosie the Riveter of the film festival. The implicit lesson: Life is short, work hard, create and connect.

Students are rewarded for their creative efforts with passes to the festival, which enable them to travel the world watching films about issues to which they have never been exposed. They see that darn sign each day and know that their community supports them. They Pin, snapchat, tweet, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, and Instagram the sign till the viral world is saturated.

Then the connections happen and the spiraling possibilities are endless. The SONOMAWOOD sign is a first-hand lesson in local politics, so perhaps one student catches the political bug, then interns at City Hall, and eventually takes over for planner Joe Burroughs. Another transfers back to SVHS so he can learn more about filmmaking in Peter Hansen’s renowned media arts class, prominently funded by the film festival. Yet another may become a screenwriter and submit her script to Pixar’s John Lasseter.

Perhaps one student gets serious about her painting and starts working with Plein Aire. Or one becomes Kevin McNeely’s private bodyguard and eventually writes a best-selling tell-all book. And maybe one even becomes a teacher who inspires the next generation to create and display 50-foot art projects.

All because of that darn sign.

Walt Williams, a veteran and revered teacher at Creekside High School, helps steer his students toward visions of a 50-foot sign.


Story: Walt Williams
Photo: Patrice Ward

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