“Avenue Grounds” mural in progress
Photo by Ligia Cuevas’ Johnson

Lettering artists, calligraphers and sign painters of every type have nourished their love affair with the brush through centuries of human communicational needs. Sign design, featuring unique attractive shapes and the seductive element of neon, has been a ubiquitous element of the American landscape. Our romance with the road and the art of the sign painter can be experienced in the expanded collection of the American Sign museum. This year, ASM is the site of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Letterheads.

Attending the Letterheads Conference meeting this weekend at the American SIgn Museum in Camp Washington, Cincinnati Ohio was a great pleasure. This very loosely organized group has been meeting sporadically since the Original Seven first gathered in Denver, Colorado, 1975. The Keepers of this Craft are still radiating artistic excellence and attracting a fresh energy to the various art forms that they practice while passing on the rich traditions of sign painting and related crafts to new generations. Tod Swormstedt, ST Media’s President and CEO, said this year’s Letterhead meet, the 40th anniversary, offered more than 20 workshops from the world’s highest authorities in the sign, lettering, mural, and pin-striping communities.The itinerary featured several classes in calligraphy, basic gilding techniques and gilding embellishments, airbrushing, faux finishes, classic pinstriping and graphic arts from the Golden Age of Signwork among others.

Two of the original seven letterheads were present at this year’s gathering: Noel Weber, Sr. of Boise, Idaho and Mark Oatis, based in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Both men generously shared their time interviewing with this artist.

Noel Ward Sr. at the Gilding seminar
Photo by Marlene Steele

I junketed on my own over to the Radisson Hotel, Covington where Noel Weber Sr. was conducting an off site seminar on the laying of gold leaf and embellishment treatments. The convention room was packed with students intent at their work stations, hovering over their project assignment in various stages of development.  Circulating through the room, I found devotees from Australia, UK, Spain, Germany as well as from all over the States.  Collaborating with Dave Smith of London, whose complex designs are in demand internationally, and assisted by his son Noel Weber, Jr., Mr. Weber, Sr. patiently passed through the crowded room, instructing students in the processes of this art.  Noel commented that back in the beginning, seekers of the leafing skills were going to Europe to learn the secrets and replicate old world classics.  In today’s culture, the skill seekers are coming from all over the world to the states for technique and study. In turn, as the personal styling of the contemporary individual merges with the classic elements, the skills are being expanded and new visual styles emerge.

The complex design celebrating the organization’s anniversary and representing the legacy of the art is also a collaboration between Dave Smith of London and Noel Weber Sr. I asked Mr. Weber to expand on the symbolic elements of the logo. The female figure personifying the goddess of lettering, rises from the earth entwined with roses. Reaching upward she touches the double TT’s  in the word ‘Letterheads’ on the banner. In the lettering field, it is well known that designing lettering on the curve as well as double letter combinations are classic problems for the letterer, challenging the artist’s skilled manipulation of the line space. The banner is supported on either side by a symbolic design of the phoenix rising. In her glory, the goddess indicates that the lettering craft is alive and well. The entire design is printed on glass and slumped in an oven to allow the surface to drop.  “The slumped curvature adds another degree of complexity to the project,” declared Noel.  The design also includes two additional banners “Skills and Discipline” and “Keepers of our Craft”, the mottos of the organization.

I was on my way to see the ‘wall dogs’ event.

The work vans of Brush Boy and Magic Mike among others were parked along the cracked Camp Washington sidewalks under rusted razor wire. These vans are virtual rolling exhibits of the owner’s profession and handiwork, surely a tantalizing prelude to the on site events.  In the brilliant September sunlight, the mural projects were well underway, fortressed behind scaffolding on which each team of artists stroked away at their transferred designs.

Overseeing all 6 wall dog projects from the ground was Centerville, Iowa based Nancy Bennett. Her preliminary project duties included selecting themes and researching design elements for each mural, coordinating with museum director approval. Assigning a project manager/designer. Matching skills and personalities of painters to project teams. Securing in advance all scaffolding, materials, cleaners, projectors, blowup and transfer necessities, tables, tents and you name it. “The (volunteer) artists bring their brushes and hit the wall”. Nancy’s warm smile competed with the sunshine.

Most of the selected themes reflected business and sport history in Camp Washington. These were: Crosley industries, NexGen Supplies-industry staple on Spring Grove Avenue, Fashion Frocks, noted for the innovation of home party marketing of its fashion items and later manufacturing parachutes for WWII supply.  “Avenue Grounds” portrays the likeness of early Redlegs player/manager, Cal McVey, shouldering his bat on the practice grounds that predated historic Crosley Field. Interesting enough, Nancy found the supportive research in the Iowa Baseball Hall of Fame and not locally. Another mural, appropriately enough, was a reproduction of the Letterheads program design, featuring portraits of the seven originators. Last mural in production is a reblast of the first cover of “Signs of the Times” magazine, a Cincinnati published trade mag to the sign and lettering industry. It portrays the image of a lone wall dog, swaying atop a single wooden ladder in the act of stroking the paint on a rough, sky high surface.

“The human hand painting of advertising graphics has all but disappeared from our environment ” stated Nancy. I asked Darek Johnson, the 20 plus year technology editor and analyst for the Cincinnati-based Signs of the Times magazine, a publication of ST Media Group International, regarding the Letterheads 40th Anniversary event. He said: “The Letterheads society and its events are a type of phenomena because only the passion of a few individuals has allowed the continuation of the hand-crafted, lettering element of the signmaking trade. … The only requirement for joining the group is a passion for handcrafted signs and lettering. The modern transformation of the signpainting trade, from brushwork to machine-cut letters, was triggered by the 1982 introduction of signmaking technology, i.e., machines  called “cutting plotters”  that allowed signshops to almost instantly machine-cut letters from adhesive-backed vinyl and apply them as signs to almost any surface.  What once took a day now takes an hour.”

Event Logo Design
Photo by Marlene Steele

With the disruptive innovation of vinyl cut letter transfer and the advent of virtual technology, design theory and the skills of lettering techniques are disgarded as no longer in demand.

In conversation with Letterhead original, Mark Oatis of Las Vegas Nevada, I listened with sincere interest as Mark revisited the history of this organization. Oatis authenticated the mission: that handmade sign craft techniques be transferred artist to artist in personal contact to preserve the craft through generations. The art of good letterform needs to constructed from pencil to brush and based on informed principles of structure and style. With tears in his eyes, he related how Doc Guthrie taught sign work at LA Trade Tech: how to do lettering, how to work with clients and how not to be a knucklehead. Oatis recalled that at the 25th meet, held in Boise in 2000, a show of hands revealed 8 persons under 30 years of age, were present and interested in the craft.  This weekend’s gala event, a full 1/3 of the attending, approximately 100, were attending seminars to learn trade tips from the pros.

Sign design in all its glory can be experienced in the expanded collection of the American Sign Museum.

Unique attractive shapes, moving and rotating classics, poster and performance arts and classic business design are displayed. The seductive art of neon sign design can be observed being made and repaired in the museum’s neon shop. It is well worth the time to take in the historic collection at this location.

As for the 40th Letterhead Meet, truly what they learned and what they shared will always be remembered.

–Marlene Steele, painter and calligrapher, resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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