The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Sign Painters: What a Disappearing Art Teaches Us About Creative Purpose and Process

As a lover of exquisite handlettering, elegant vintage-inspired typography, and vibrant storefront signage, I was instantly smitten with Sign Painters (public library) — a stunning companion to Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s documentary of the same title, exploring the disappearing art through interviews with some of its most prominent masters amidst a lavish gallery of extraordinary hand-painted signage, with a foreword by Ed Ruscha. But this is no mere eye candy — brimming with candid insights, personal stories, and wisdom on the creative life, the book envelops the “what” with rich and ample layers of the “how” and the “why.” Macon affirms this in the introduction:

This book, like the job of the sign painter, isn’t always about eye-popping, flashy designs. It’s about process. It’s about communication. It’s about the experiences, years of practice, tricks of the trade, and design fundamentals learned over time that transform a person who just wants to paint signs into a great sign painter.

Cautioning against the glamorized nostalgia that the trope of documentaries about near-obsolete occupations tends to deliberately play on, Glenn Adamson, head of research at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, writes:

In setting on this topic, Levine and Macon are just in time. Many sign painters are now retired, or about to hang up their brushes; others have made the transition to easier, cheaper, but depressingly homogenous vinyl lettering or large-scale digital printing. As is often the case, it is at the moment o f a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see.

In many ways, the individual journeys of the featured painters embody Daniel Pink’s concept of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the trifecta of success. We see them enter into the craft via astoundingly different paths — from generations-old family sign-painting traditions to serendipitous discoveries, from fine art to street art, from graphic design to gardening — yet what unites them is a shared celebration of having found creative purpose, loving the work in and of itself rather than seeing is as a means to some material end.

Doc Guthrie (Los Angeles, California) echoes Alan Watts and articulates it beautifully:

This was a real creative way to make a living — and notice I said ‘make a living,’ not ‘get rich.’ If your’e under the illusion that you’re going to do something like this and get rich, it’s not going to happen. If you want to make a good living, and you want to wake up every morning and look forward to the day, look forward to painting a truck, getting up on a wall, painting a movie background, that’s a good life. Many people in this country dread getting up and going to work. You have fifty years of work ahead of you, and it should be something that you really love. I never got rich, but I provided a living for my family and owned a home — that’s a working-class American success story.

Over and over, we see this recurring theme of creative romanticism scoffing at mercantile motives. Bob Behounek (Chicago, Illinois) laments:

Bigger and better machines became available. People were getting into the sign business just to make money. … There are more people out there now who don’t understand or don’t have the passion to create a well-designed sign. Vinyl machines can cut, they can give you a circle and a square, but they can’t give you the passion of a sign painter.

If you’re in a creative field and have ever been asked about how you’re going to “scale” what you do, you might share in shuddering. Sean Starr (Denton, Texas) gets to the heart of it:

When you get the sign-painting bug, it’s not about the money. If it was, you could expand in the right market and have twenty people working for you, but you wouldn’t have the enjoyable aspect of taking time on projects. If you’re in a high-production shop, which I worked in on the digital and vinyl side years ago, it’s just miserable. It’s like a sweatshop. You don’t have the latitude for creativity because you’re being told, ‘Okay, we need three hundred of these, two hundred of this, by this deadline.’ Who cares about the money?

Coupled with that is a courageous championing of pursuing creative rewards despite uncertainty and the fear of failure. Norma Jeanne Maloney (Austin, Texas) echoes Thoreau and captures it beautifully:

There’s some fear involved in doing what you love. I get up every morning and I look at that fear and say to myself, ‘I’m doing what I love today,’ and that gets me through the day.

Some are journeys of overcoming unlikely odds, like the story of Rose Otis (Las Vegas, Nevada):

I worked with the master [Jerry Albright] for five years. After the apprenticeship, he tagged on six months for students who wanted to learn gold-leaf techniques. There were probably three or four women in my class, and it was very hard to get a job. The guys at the sign shops said that i was too small an d short (I was), that I couldn’t carry my ladders, I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. They basically said that they’d hire me to sweep the floors and make coffee, but as a woman I wasn’t going to be working in the world as a sign painter.

Or take Bob Dewhurst (San Francisco, California):

I first got interested in sign painting because I was locked up in a mental institution. THere was this guy who escaped, and when they finally caught him everyone wanted to know what he’d been doing. ‘I went to San Francisco and made all this money as a sign painter,’ he told us. I thought, ‘Yeah, maybe if I escape I can go to San Francisco and paint signs, too.’

For some, this is the dawn of a brave new world that only expands our collective creative acumen. Gary Martin (Austin, Texas) marvels:

I’m extremely happy. I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island by myself for years and then all of a sudden a bunch of other people started showing up to join me. I weathered it,and sine the new wave of these younger sign painters started getting involved it makes me work and try harder. It has energized me so much. Now I can post my stuff online and get reactions from other sign painters. When I’m designing a sign I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this will be seen by a lot of people who have discriminating eyes. I have to make this good.’

For others, the virtual world is the villain to beware. Ira Coyne (Olympia, Washington) shares in Anaïs Nin’s celebration of handcraft and considers the cultural value of this disappearing art:

Sign painting creates jobs — more importantly, jobs for artists. Art and music are the first things to go in schools. The role of art is disappearing. When we were kids, we learned about bakers and candlestick makers. We learned about cobblers and all these old-school, awesome things that people did their entire lives. They specialized in making one thing. … In archeology, the things that matter most are handmade: ceramics, glass, sarcophagi, paintings. The most valued objects of lost cultures are the things that were made by hand. We need to start making things with our hands again.

In fact, Coyne believes that learning to avoid work and pursue passion will profoundly change our cultural landscape:

When corporate America started taking over and steamrolling everything, we became more and more disconnected. People are starting to rebuild those neighborhoods. If the guy who’s been working at some job that he hates moves on and opens that coffee shop or store he has always wanted to own, that will change the landscape of America.

Keith Knecht (Toledo, Ohio), who passed away in 2011 and to whom the book is lovingly dedicated, frames the historical context of sign painting as an intersection of art and commerce:

Sign painting, as we know it here in America, is a good 150 years old. It all started when growers and manufacturers began to brand their products. Before that, if you needed flour, you went to the general store and the shop owner would have a barrel of flour and would fill up a canvas bag for you. Manufacturers realized that they had to market their products to show that their goods were better than the competition. That’s when Gold Medal flour, Morton Salt, and other brands were introduced. In 1840 there weren’t big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue designing logos and creating campaigns for these companies. Sign painters designed these logos.

This osmosis of the creative and the practical appears again and again. Forrest Wozniak (Minneapolis, Minnesota) observes:

What I feel separates sign painting from art is that art is an exploration of one’s self. Whether they are exploring their egos, emotions, or their pasts, artists are exploring themselves. There’s no real failure in pursuing art. you have to do signs correctly; there’s a correct format. It’s similar to carpentry. If you need to cut something seventeen inches long, you have to cut it the right size. Sign painting appealed to my logical nature. It’s a way to pursue art with a right and a wrong.

From Wozniak also comes what’s possibly the most poignant observation on the craft’s singular allure:

As a sign painter you are a deacon to society because you don’t work for someone who is successful, you work for someone who hopes to be successful.

But underpinning the entire cross-section of sign artists is a quiet yet unflinching testament to the ethos that the best kind of success is the one you define yourself, based not on prestige or money but on process and happiness. And what makes Sign Painters particularly alluring is its focus on something so tangible and lasting, on permanent atoms in the age of ephemeral bits, reminding us that these artists are not remnants of a bygone era in the evolution of creative culture but a vital signpost pointing in the unchanging director of what’s truly and everlastingly human.

Thanks, Lisa; images courtesy Princeton University Press

Published March 20, 2013




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