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Letterheads keep hand-painted sign business relevant

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February 01, 2012|By Taylor Ervin, RedEye

Stuck in the middle of an advertising world dominated by banner ads and pop-ups, it's hard to image a time when most advertisements were hand painted on brick walls and shop windows. 

Thirty years ago, a man with a paintbrush and a bit of know-how could make himself a decent living. But over the last three decades, advances in technology have made costly and time consuming hand painted signs all but obsolete. Thus, sign painters slowly began to slide into a category crowded with the likes of blacksmiths, milkmen and video store clerks. Yet, a few dedicated Chicagoans continue to keep the dying craft alive.

As a kid growing up in Rogers Park during the 1960s Noel Weber became fascinated with the work of a man who painted letters on the side of school buses by hand. Everyday after school, Weber would sit and watch him work. "...the graceful movement of his brush, I was just mesmerized," Weber said.

After high school Weber got drafted to serve in Vietnam where he got his first experience as a sign painter sloping serial numbers onto the sides of helicopters. When his platoon commander asked if anybody had any artist ability, Weber's hand shot up.

"[The letters] were pretty hideous, but it got me out of manning a machine gun," he said.

After his tour of duty, Weber returned home and used the money from his G.I. Bill to study at The Institute of Lettering and Design off of Touhy Avenue. He then worked in the suburbs awhile before heading west and ending up in Denver.

"Denver in the 1970s was my Paris," Weber said. 

Weber found a teaming pool of creativity in the mile high city and quickly fell in with a group of young designers who all shared a similar goal. Disillusioned with the formulaic, uninteresting designs of the commercial world in which they worked, the group wanted to bring some true art and emotion back into design. So, they turned to the techniques of the past.

"There wasn't anybody around who could teach us, so we started looking at some old books and taught ourselves."

As they got more serious about their practice, this group of young artists coalesced into what today is known as the letterheads, a international organization of sign painters self described as "keepers of the craft."  The letterheads immersed themselves in the study of hand painted signs gold leaf lettering and other classic techniques.

Shortly after the Letterheads began their crusade to restore their craft in the late 70s, they were dealt a devastating blow by Steve Jobs. In January of 1984, Apple released the Macintosh, the first home computer to feature a graphic user interface rather than a command-prompt interface, which meant everyone, not just nerds, could use a computer in their home.

Within a short amount of time everything that these sign painters were doing by hand, was typed into a computer and spit out as vinyl letters. Suddenly sign making became cheap, fast and required very little training to do. But according to many old school sign painters, it looked horrible. 

Chicago Letterhead Stephen Reynolds, who works from his home studio in Lincoln Square, said that hand painted letters "offer things that digital process can't provide. It's a one of a kind. It is painted with care by a real human being." 

Reynolds is not alone, but he is in short company.

Fellow Chicago letterhead Robert Frese, who specializes in gold leaf signs ("the Cadillac of sign painting"), said "there's nothing that replaces the beauty and class of a golf leaf window."

Reynolds and Frese have both been around the block. Each of them has been working in the sign business for more than 25 years, and neither is too far removed from retirement. So where are all of the young guys? They simply aren't there.

"When I started 30 years ago, there were lots of guys doing it, and now they are all dead or retired," Frese said. 

Many obstacles stand in the way of a young sign painter.

"You can do 1000 strokes and they all look like crap. It's very hard to get the feel for it. It's really an art like yoga or Tai Chi," Reynolds said. "Many artists have a resistance to it because it doesn't allow a looseness. But for me, it's sort of zen like. When I'm painting, I'm very focused. I'm right at the end of the quill. I live at the edge of that line. It's very peaceful."

Despite unwillingness for young people to dedicate themselves to the long hours it requires to master the craft, Reynolds remains optimistic about the future of the sign painting. The demand for professionally commissioned hand painted signs may be steadily declining, but that doesn't mean that a new form of art can't live on in the same tradition Reynolds said.

Reynolds often photographs graffiti and other signs made by amateur sign painters and naive artists that he sees on the street. He feels that the sign painting tradition will at least live on in this more informal way. 

"It would be similar to making furniture or making music," Reynolds said. "How many people do you know that make music who didn't take formal lessons? There are many. There's always that part of it."

So as long as there are still blank walls, cans of paint and willingness for people to express themselves, sign painting is not going anywhere.

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