9 Mar 2023

Alighting in Astoria: A Permanent Light Capsules Legacy

The process of restoring/repainting ghost signs is a hotly debated topic: should it be done at all, and how can it be done authentically, especially in the case of multi-layered signs (aka palimpsests)?

But no-one can argue with Craig Winslow’s awe-inspiring approach, and the painstaking work he puts into his ‘Light Capsules’. These involve recreating the graphics of the fading painted signs, and projecting them back onto the original walls at night to show how they might once have looked.

Now, in Astoria, Oregon, one of these Light Capsules is taking up permanent residence.

This article was originally posted here at bl.ag online, home of BLAG (Better Letters Magazine).

Lighting Up

Craig’s Light Capsules started on a road trip from Portland, Maine, to Portland Oregon, where each night he was playing with his projection mapping skills in a different location. One evening, he chanced upon a ghost sign and realised that the medium of light would be a neat way to bring back its opacity without interfering with the original faded artefact. He explains:

“Using projection for restoration is non-damaging, and non-invasive. It provides a strong preservation solution that traditional mediums can’t provide. Using light as a medium, we can visually explore the stories of every layer, seeing how a building has changed throughout the years.”

The idea was gradually refined, and then given a huge boost when Craig was awarded an Adobe Creative Residency. These provide funding for creative projects, and Craig was given a year to develop the Light Capsules concept, delivering an extended series of installations in the process. (I was proud to assist in bringing Light Capsules 008–012 to London in 2016.)

Light Capsule 004

The Light Capsule in Astoria, Oregon, is what Craig describes as “the first ‘big’ installation of the series” during the early part of his Adobe Creative Residency. Not only did the wall feature multiple signs, including layers in palimpsest, but some of these advertised, and were likely painted by, the Astoria Sign Co.

The initial installation took place in 2016 at 254 9th Street, Astoria, Oregon, and was the fourth in the series which now extends to 37 in total.

Light Capsule 004 in Astoria, Oregon.

Back Stories

In addition recreating the signs themselves, Craig also likes to get under the skin of the companies that they advertised. In London I was able to offer up the research from my walking tours and, in the case of the installation in Astoria, Oregon, some of these historical notes are included on the projections themselves.

In total there are eight businesses represented across the wall and the layers on it: Astoria Harness & Top Shop; Carl Laine & Sons Tailor Shop (1930-1942); Astoria Sign Co.; Nyman Judge Inc.; Buster Brown Shoes (1925-1939); Emil Nyman Shoes; Athens Grocery; and Radio Service Co.

“Carl Laine, the tailor, was my grandfather. He had come through Ellis Island from Finland about 1900, then after a couple of years in Minnesota moved to Astoria. My dad, Victor Laine, had to learn English when he went to grade school, as all that was spoken at home was Finnish. This is a picture of Carl Laine at work—he was always dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit, even when fishing for crawdads.” — Brian Laine, Carl Laine’s Grandson. Photo courtesy of Brian Laine.

Finding archival photos is the holy grail of recreating accurate graphics, but these images are typically few and far between. However, in this case, a picture shared by Sara’s Old Photos on Facebook “blew the lid off the mystery surrounding the round medallion on the left side of the wall”.

Some of the signs at different life stages in this photo of Rocky’s Shell Service Station from the Ball Studio Collection at the Clatsop County Historical Society.

However, as with all historical research, some questions remain open, and Craig still has one outstanding piece to unlock:

“Athens Grocery is a bit of a mystery at the moment; the letters fit but we can’t find any reference to a grocery store of that name.”

The Process of Permanence

Last year Craig collaborated with Matt Cohen at ghostsigns.ca to create the world’s first permanent Light Capsule in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The project was carried out in parallel with this one in Astoria, Oregon, and required an iterative process to get the mapping of the projections just right.

Historically, Craig has been present for his temporary installations, with a rig including the projector and his laptop with the mapping software. To deliver a permanent installation requires the creation of a printed piece of glass that produces the image when light from the projector passes through it.

“The technical process to get everything perfect took some revisions, as you can expect when trying to align gobo light fixture technology so precisely to a wall. Each slight change meant reprinting a physical small piece of glass, driving to Astoria, and repositioning. Through this process, I grew a close partnership with the gobo manufacturer Rosco and am now a Rosco Ambassador, helping to refine their workflow for precise alignment mapping.” — Craig Winslow

Doubling Down

The project’s funders, building owners Marcus and Michelle Liotta, originally committed to one projector for the main portion of the wall with the Astoria Sign Co. / Carl Laine & Sons palimpsest. However, the discovery of the details on the wall to the left of this led to Craig funding a second projector himself for a more complete installation.

The two projectors on their rig on the building opposite the wall of ghost signs.

The permanent installation has also been recognised with an informative plaque, fabricated by the local sign and sign painting firm Studio Sign Co. / @studiosignco.

Thank you Craig Winslow / @craigwinslow / @hellowinslowstudio for your collaboration on this article. The projectors are programmed to make the Light Capsules visible from sunset to 10pm every evening, and until 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The location is 254 9th Street Astoria, Oregon, and the launch event is being held on Saturday 18 March.

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