Monday, October 22, 2012

Inspired by Sign Painters, I Search for Hand-Lettered Signs in Bay View

Given the success of Faythe Levine’s annual Art Vs. Craft show and the multi-media project that became Handmade Nation, both of which celebrate artisan workmanship, I guess I’m not surprised that she not only was interested in the struggling art of hand-lettered signs, but that she was friends with a number of the practitioners. The result is Sign Painters, a book and, with the collaboration of Sam Macon, a documentary project that documents the work of 26 folks in the field.

Some of the sign painters are old guard and can document the decline of the art/craft through digitalization and homogeneity, while other relatively younger practitioners are hoping, in Josh Luke’s words, to “positively affect the visual landscape” of their cities. At least one artist came to it by way of graffiti, sign painting’s bad boy cousin. And the profiles can be quite quirky—one artist uses no blue or green in his work, for example.

As you would expect from Levine and Macon, the results are not just visually arresting, but intellectually challenging, forcing us to contemplate the small pleasures of our landscape and contemplate what we give up in the name of progress.

We're co-sponsoring Levine and Macon's launch on Saturday, November 3, 7 pm, at Sugar Maple, on 441 E. Lincoln Avenue in Bay View. I'm very excited to be working again with Bruno and Adrienne at Sugar Maple. It's such a nice space for an event, and of course it's close to my home. And it's close to Levine as well, as she curates the Sky High Gallery on South Howell.

I was curious to note that none of the folks profiled in Sign Painters are from the Milwaukee area. I was curious, as we have the right mix of all guard working folk/artistans and young art school grads. I certainly remember some fine work around town, which is, sadly, slowly being covered up. There was the Republic Airlines sign you could see along the river for decades after its merger with Northwest, the Marx toy distribution sign that was visible in the Third Ward, and the pesticide sign that was only now covered up by a tower on Old World Third Street.

Going back to my early years at Schwartz pre computer, we used to have one of the Sendiks butchers make our event signs. There were hand lettered, sometimes with an accompanying drawing, sometimes not. They looked quite a bit like the weekly sale on whole turkeys, but now I wish I saved some of them. I don't think I ever even considered taking a photo.

I figured if I was going to see some fancy signwork, it would likely be in Bay View, right? There's of course the sign for Luv Unlimited, but it doesn't quite fall into the genre covered in Sign Painters.

The cold beer sign on a nearby convenience store is clean and professional, but a bit dry. I've always been found of the "100,000 parts" sign, but I think that's been done so long ago that the painter might no longer be around. Once you start looking around, you see the work of sign painters everywhere.

I think maybe the best work is this mural outside Collectors Edge. As is the case for many of these signs, I don't know if they are done in the old school model. Perhaps there's a way to layout the work with computers. But if this sign was actually done by hand, it's probably also new enough to qualify, in terms of quality and vintage. Hey, I nominate you, whoever you are, for the second edition. And now this whole experiment has me wondering how I could fit a hand-painted sign into Boswell. I have some ideas.

Speaking of which, that Sugar Maple sign is pretty darn good, but I don't think the backlit signs count; they are almost always digital blowups.

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