photo via http://www.baycitizen.org/visual-art/story/sign-times-hand-painted-signs-see/
A couple of years ago, I was asked to paint a sign for a non-profit organization (which never happened due to a change in directors), which I accepted. At that point, I hadn't really thought of sign painting being something that could possibly be revived to a point that one could make it a career, but I sure liked the idea of getting to finally get away from the computer for a change, especially since I am first and foremost an artist who yearns for the tactile experience of creating. I knew I could design a sign for the org. but I had no idea how I would go about actually painting it, especially what kind of paint to use that would stand-up against the test of time. So, I decided to do some research and see what others had done in the past, before the dawn of computers. To my complete and utter joy, I stumbled across New Bohemia Signs' website, a very much alive and thriving sign painting company in San Francisco. I immediately fell in love. When I found New Bohemia and started learning of other active sign painters, it was like this light bulb went on and something just finally clicked and I finally found the balance between graphic design and fine art; my happy place.
Besides NBS' amazing work, I think it was an interview with the owner, Damon Styer I read that got me the most fired up, and that ultimately convinced me I had been on the right path all along. In a nutshell, it was the idea of keeping the art of the hand-painted sign alive because of the beauty and quality of something produced with a personal touch and human element in a sea of mass-produced, impersonal crap. Ultimately, it was the “fight against the homogenization of our culture” that I needed to be a part of, especially since that was what I had been trying to do since the day I stepped foot into my first design class.
From the moment I began design school in 2001, I struggled with whether or not I would be able to stick with it as the need to be in a studio painting or creating things by hand grew stronger and stronger. Luckily, I still had a place of refuge in my painting, drawing and screen-printing classes. So much so, that I was criticized by my design teachers and told that I "needed to get my priorities straight". Needless to say, I was extremely worried that they were right and I had no idea how I would continue on the design path and earn my degree if I couldn't be granted the freedom to create with my hands. Regardless, deep down, I knew that I was doing the right thing by continuing to rebel against the computer, so I did. But, I made sure that I did so by trying to find a way to tie the two together and find that balance so that I could prove my design instructors wrong. I remember that it was during this time, probably around 2003, while taking a painting course, that I came across the work of Margaret Kilgallen, a painter (who died at a sickeningly too young of an age) whose work was greatly influenced by folk art and the dying art of sign painting. Margaret was like this beacon of hope for me. She was my idol and my inspiration and influenced me to embrace my design training by incorporating graphic elements and symbols to communicate visually through my art. After all, I was majoring in Visual Communication (although, with the way I was ridiculed, I could have sworn I was majoring in advertising)! I was now on a mission; a mission to create fine art that communicated a message for social and political change. In 2005, when Senior Capstone came along, the walls were adorned with product promos, and clever advertising campaigns, while the tiny corner I occupied was covered in satirical sociopolitical commentary on consumer culture, despising the very thing that surrounded my work in that room. Regardless of the obvious rebellion hanging on the wall, I graduated!
Now it was time to really prove those design professors wrong by finding a design job that would allow me to serve my community and society for the better without having to sell things/stuff to people that they don't need. I applied for various positions such as a children’s book cover designer, Colorado parks and recreation services sign designer and installer and The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History’s exhibition signage designer. While nothing was panning out, I began to wonder if everyone else was right. Perhaps I was too idealistic. Perhaps there was no hope for someone in today’s society to make a living doing something honest and pure. But I didn’t give in that easily. Instead of taking the easy way out by applying to some large ad. agency, I decided to take a position as the receptionist of the Graduate College at the University of Oklahoma so I could be financially secure while I searched for my niche in the design world.
To keep my creative juices flowing in an 8-5 receptionist position, monotonously filing GRE score after GRE score, answering phone calls with the same questions day after day, I began redesigning the Graduate College’s brochure (it was put together by a former staff member in Microsoft Publisher). The assistant Dean at the time saw what I was doing and immediately realized the need for good design within the Graduate College. To my delight, I was one day called into the assistant Dean’s office and asked if I wanted a full-time position in the Graduate College that would allow me to design more things for them, with more pay and a cubicle instead of the front desk. Of course I jumped at this chance as I was having no luck finding anything else, no matter where I was looking. Of course, I would still have to perform administrative duties along with the minimal design projects they would assign but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with the constant ringing of the phone, influx of whiny students and piles of tedious paperwork. I was one step closer to realizing my full potential as a designer.
After a while, the Graduate College began new initiatives to improve the graduate experience at OU as well as to increase awareness of the Graduate College on campus, and to ultimately increase the value of graduate education in the minds of various populations. In order to do so, it was necessary to establish a visual identity and to work on building our brand’s equity. The more initiatives the Dean came up with, the more value my position held. Over time, I weeded out all of the monotonous administrative work and now I have fully grown into the Visual Communications Design Specialist of the Graduate College.
All of that to say, even though I haven't actualized my full potential, I proved that I was right in keeping course and proving to past professors that I would find my niche in the design world, despite what they thought to be true. It is clear to me that I have been on the right path and that path has lead me to a certain junction, where the signs are clearly pointing to the direction of sign painting.
Sign painting seems to be the perfect balance between both worlds that I love, graphic design and the art of the human hand. As for New Bohemia Signs, I’ve been stalking them online ever since I discovered them. In fact, while in San Francisco for a conference with some coworkers, I actually had the most extraordinary pleasure to meet Damon Styers in person. I was so nervous to walk into that shop; my coworkers forced me to step inside. They didn’t understand that, to me this was like meeting my idol and not walking into just any old shop. Of course, I’ve been thinking about all of the things I could have asked while there but didn’t because I was so nervous. But at least I still got to step foot inside the shop. I did a bit of a scavenger sign hunting in the area as well. Finding a sign painted by them was like finding gold to me (and in some cases, literally as I spied many a gold leaf in windows as well) My coworkers probably got a bit annoyed at the level of excitement I would reach each time I found one. I think you get the picture; I am obsessed.
To this day, I continue to be on a mission to "fight against the homogenization of our culture" and funny enough, I noticed that more and more people are jumping on board. In fact, a New York Times article about the rejuvenation of the craft, featuring Damon Styer of New Bohemia Signs was published today. It seems like anytime I get passionate about something, it becomes really popular. I'm not saying that I caused it, I'm just saying, I think the idea has been floating around in the ether for sometime now and those that are meant to are reaching out and grabbing it. I just hope some of them happen to live in the same town I do.
Here's to the fight against the homogenization of our culture! Long live authenticity!