The mere mention of COVID-19 brings up a lot of feelings. Sadness, confusion, anger. Joan Vorderbruggen of the Hennepin Theatre Trust wanted to find a sense of hope and gratitude during this time of crisis.

She worked with Clear Channel Outdoor to commission 11 Minnesota artists to create designs for digital billboards on highways in Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties that would engender positive feelings during these uncertain, scary times.

Titled “Art Connects Us,” the digital artworks will rotate each week on 10 billboards beginning Wednesday. Different billboards will display the work on following weeks. By the time the project ends May 31, a total of 60 billboards will have been involved.

“It’s rich for us to take a pause and send a positive message to people who are still on the highways, most of whom would rather be at home, and are probably doing a lot of courageous things with their lives,” said Vorderbruggen.

For Clear Channel, this is a change from paid advertising and public service announcements that typically screen on digital billboards.

“Doing something related to the current crisis but through art is a breath of fresh air for me,” said Dan Ballard, Minneapolis branch president of Clear Channel Outdoor. “It’s social expression, something that lets everyone know they are not the only ones seeing or feeling these things.”

Vorderbruggen, who is the trust’s director of Hennepin Theatre District Engagement, has built a reputation as an advocate of “creative placemaking.” She oversaw the creation of the Bob Dylan mural on Hennepin Avenue and championed “Made Here,” a storefront initiative in downtown Minneapolis that brings art to empty shop windows.

The trust already had a partnership with Clear Channel. It seemed the perfect vehicle to send messages of hope for people affected by COVID-19, and gratitude for people working on the front lines such as day-care providers, grocery store workers, health care workers and janitors.

When Vorderbruggen called up Duluth-based artist Kathy McTavish to ask if she’d take part in the project, she said yes immediately. McTavish had a busy year of physical installation planned, but COVID-19 changed that.

“Being able to do some physical stuff in a safe way is so great to me — and that it will have a street presence,” she said.

Each of the artists (including one two-person team) was paid $500.

“Love” was the word that McTavish wanted to broadcast. She lived through the AIDS crisis, and she likened the perverse ways that touch — then and now — was both desired and deadly.

“There’s day-care providers and people working in homeless shelters and food shelters — that’s courage, being on the front lines, being in a very real way,” she said. “That’s the potency of love.”

Artist Marlena Myles uses her billboard to bring an Indigenous perspective to the pandemic. She planned to have several symbols on it, such as a tepee to represent staying at home, a floral design to represent nourishment to self and others, and the Dakota text “Čhaŋtéwašte,” which means “one’s heart is good.”

“Going forward, I hope people keep in mind what it’s like to be part of a community,” she said.