28 Jul 2013

Sign Painters: The movie, the book and the resurgence

The Sign Painter Movie is now on tour with dates booked in until November, including Scotland and New Zealand for those outside the film’s USA base. I was treated to a preview screening and also got my hands on the book that accompanies the film. This was immensely exciting following my tracking of the project for some time. Both outputs are outstanding pieces of work and, I believe, huge support to the current resurgence in the popularity of signs painted by hand.

Hand-painted sign saying 'Sign painters do it in 1 shot'
Photo: Sign Painters book

“It is at the moment of a craft’s disappearance that it’s cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see”

 – Glenn Adamson

This quote from the book epitomises what appears to be happening with sign painting in countries like the USA and UK, a reappraising of the value of sign painting and a resurgence in its popularity. It also rings true of the value attached to ghostsigns as they fade almost to nothing. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. However, as this book and film testify to, the sign painting craft never went away.

Photo of Ed Ruscha painting a 'No Dumping' sign
Photo: James Wojcik

The book and the film are a celebration of those who have been working at the trade since the ‘Pre-Vinylite‘ period, and some who started after this. Their stories reveal the human dimension of life in the business, and the characters that earn a crust from putting paint and brush to whatever surface necessary.

Some of this is emotive stuff, not least the interview with Keith Knecht who passed away in 2011 before the publication of the book which is now dedicated to his memory. In his words, you see a deep love and knowledge of the sign painting business, now thankfully documented by the efforts of Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, the film-makers and authors behind the project. He, among others, shunned the seemingly overwhelming advance of vinyl cut letters and kept true to the humanity of painted signs.

Norma Jean Maloney’s story of the death of her teacher, Mike Stevens, during her learning of the craft similarly reflects the fragility of life, but also it’s cyclical nature. The passing of knowledge from one generation to the next, rather than any one sign painter, is what keeps the craft alive and evolving over time. Many of the sign painters’ stories feature memories of critical words from teachers and masters about their early efforts. However, they have since come to value these as drivers of their own professional development, something that doesn’t come from receiving only praise.

Photo of painted sign for Red Rider Studios
Photo: Sign Painters Book

There is a discourse that has built up around the idea of sign painting and other manual crafts being in decline, and I am certainly guilty of fueling this in much that I’ve written on the topic. This book and film show that the craft is thriving, albeit among a smaller group of practitioners, and that it is in rude health to take on the work that is coming from the renewed vogue for things made by hand.

It is this that I love most about Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s work. They have adopted a positive position on the topic and traveled all over the USA to back this up through the voices of all those that are profiled. Rather than dwelling on what has been lost, they embrace what is here now, and what is yet to come. They do so through the people at the heart of the business and have created two definitive outputs that paint a very optimistic picture for its future. In keeping with this approach, I leave you with the words of Ira Coyne who painted the cover for the book:

“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.”

Thank you to Faythe Levine, Sam Macon and the Princeton Architectural Press for providing access to the film and book for this review. I wish both outputs every success and can’t wait to see it on the big screen in London one day. [2014 Update: I was able to make my dream of a London screening come true.]


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