Friday night, I had the pleasure to attend Madison Central Library’s new Night Light free monthly event, this month’s program the film Sign Painters, produced, written and directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon. Doors opened at 8:00 on the library’s third floor, home to a lobby gallery space and the community room, transformed into a 250 seat theater. Madison’s culinary star, Forequarter, served refreshments while the filmmakers signed copies of their book with the same title. The film was shown at 8:00, and the filmmakers and authors remained for a Q & A afterwards. In the audience were Madison’s own sign painters, commenting during the film in call and response form.
The book’s publisher, Princeton Architectural Press describes the book and film this way:
There was a time, as recently as the 1980s, when storefronts, murals, banners, barn signs, billboards, and even street signs were all hand-lettered with brush and paint. But, like many skilled trades, the sign industry has been overrun by the techno-fueled promise of quicker and cheaper. The resulting proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers has ushered a creeping sameness into our visual landscape. Fortunately, there is a growing trend to seek out traditional sign painters and a renaissance in the trade. In 2010 filmmakers Faythe Levine, coauthor of Handmade Nation, and Sam Macon began documenting these dedicated practitioners, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. Sign Painters, the first anecdotal history of the craft, features stories and photographs of more than two dozen sign painters working in cities throughout the United States. With a foreword by legendary artist (and former sign painter) Ed Ruscha, this vibrant book profiles sign painters young and old, from the new vanguard working solo to collaborative shops such as San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs and New York’s Colossal Media’s Sky High Murals.
For me, the film’s profiles of sign artists and craftsmen (and women too!), was a journey back in time. I’m grateful that I was a member of the sign industry for twenty years. Like some of the sign painters chronicled in the film, sign-making was a calling, beginning as an apprenticeship, first learning the craft and techniques of this advertising art form, then establishing one’s personal style and language. I worked for Advertising Creations, a local screen-printing company owned by a sign painter, John Beyler and his sons, John, Jim and Joe.
John Sr. was the advertising manager and sign painter for Bowman Dairy. The original owner of Advertising Creations was his vendor for printed advertising for the dairy and John purchased the business for his family to operate. John Sr. was our resident sign artist. You could find him in the back room at the easel, a cigarette in one hand and a pencil or paint brush in the other.
My journey and calling began in one of those “blink” moments described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same title. I was working part-time in a mall health foods store in 1974 while attending college full-time at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in Communication Arts. This was my return to school after a hiatus in 1969. As a university student in the late sixties, I was distracted by everything from my involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements and living a hippie lifestyle for a period of time and all the rock n’ roll drug experimentation that went along with it. My new husband and I worked for awhile in Kenosha, Wisconsin and moved to Madison for two reasons, so I could return to school and live in a city that nurtured our spirits, another branching point and “blink” decision.
That day at Nutrition World, I decided that as an academically-tracked student throughout my education beginning in middle school, I always wished I had taken more art classes. Also as a baby boomer who attended elementary through high school in the mid-fifties through late sixties, I wore dresses and skirts and the electives offered to me were art, homemaking (cooking and sewing), typewriting, drama, speech and music. I took a couple of art survey courses, but the balance of my education was academic for the exception of speech and drama. I wanted to take woodworking and other shop classes, including screen-printing and typesetting and photography. Girls were not invited.
I decided that I wanted to drop out of school, again. I wanted to do work with my hands, to express my creative spirit, to use the right side of my brain (though I learned recently when I took an online quiz about left verses right brain, I default to using my left hemisphere 69% of the time verses 31% for the right). I thought in that moment if I could do anything, what would I do. I decided I wanted to learn screen-printing.
I opened the yellow pages (remember when we actually used them right before we picked up the rotary dial phone?). The first screen-printing company listed was Advertising Creations. I spoke with Joe, one of the three brothers and John Sr.’s sons. Joe was two years younger than me, and when I began asking questions about how to break into the screen-printing and sign business, he suggested I come in for an interview. Though they weren’t currently hiring, maybe something would open up in the future.
A few days later I met with the brothers and was hired on the spot. This began my apprenticeship as a printer. I worked as a screen-printer for eight years and was promoted to a sales and account representative for 12 years. During that tenure, I both printed and sold screen-printing. I worked with graphic designers and advertising agencies, sign painters and industrial designers, printing and managing projects on many substrates and from very small to building or transit-sized graphics. Some of the projects I am most proud of are museum graphics for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Museum, a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit for the Elvehjem Museum at the University of Wisconsin, now the Chazen, and work with artists screen-printing limited-edition prints and a screen-printed coffee table art book and fine arts gallery show, Chlorophyll.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from my customers who were graphic and industrial designers, the sign painters I worked with reminded me of people from my working-class roots in Racine, Wisconsin. These were men who worked with their hands, expressed their craft in the purest ways. They were eccentrics, each unique in their style, specialty and visual vocabulary. Most of them are now dead, but their work lives on. One of my favorite nicknames was given to me by a sign painter named Wally Branley. He was a fast-talking, colorful character, he always entered a room with a joke, a tease, or an opinion about the politics of the day. He liked me because I was outspoken too, a feminist woman not afraid to express my point of view. Though our politics often differed, we enjoyed the banter. He called me Annie Oakley. He said I was a straight-shooter.
There were other sign painters too, Ray who made showcards and window signs for the windows of Stop N’ Go quick marts. Another sign painter created artwork for printing, cutting Rubylith with Exacto knives, which was photographed and made into stencils for printing multiple banners, truck decals, bus signs, window awnings and signs, show cards and retail display signage. We used to say that as screen printers we could print on anything and we did, from t-shirts, to golf balls, membrane switch control touch panels with conductive ink, pressure sensitive vinyl and 3M Scotchlite reflective material. The list goes on. Often it was our sign painter vendors who created the artwork and were the go-to designers. They could do the one-of-a-kind jobs and artwork for multiple run printing jobs.
As the film depicts, many of the sign painters, just like the ones depicted in the movie lost their customer base to franchise sign shops selling computer-designed graphics and vinyl die-cutting technology. Some adapted and added to their portfolios but many slowly withered away. It was hopeful for me to hear that there’s a renaissance happening and sign painters as craftsmen (and women) are being rediscovered and appreciated, that personal style and expression is beginning to trump the homogeneous nature of much of what we see.
One of the sign painters featured in the film talked about how advertising signs and murals painted on buildings are now considered art. Even graffiti and stencil artists like Keith Haring and Banksy are now being appreciated for their visual art and political outsider messages. Like both the book and film, Sign Painters illustrates, even the most mundane and utilitarian sign serves its purpose by grabbing our attention for a moment and delivering its message. On my first visit to New Orleans, with its rich visual potpourri and history (or should I say gumbo?), the image that made me smile broadest, were the hand-painted signs on buildings, banners and billboards for a local butcher shop chain that read, “You Can’t Beat Wagner’s Meat!”