At the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, a new exhibit opens with a rather bold declaration: “Long before the internet, Google, GPS, and more there was hand painted signs defining, describing, directing our culture. The original text message.” This is written in fine print—almost unnoticeable—on the title wall of For Hire: Contemporary Sign Painting in America painted by fourth generation Houston sign painter Israel McCloud.
While dramatic, the quote isn't wrong. Replaced by computer-designed and die-cut vinyl signage from the likes of those SIGNS 'R US stores on the feeder road, sign painting was once a common craft that covered urban landscapes. “Some of these artists are trained in school, by an apprenticeship, or are self-taught. With their technical knowledge and creative license, these sign painters are able to contribute a unique vision to the brand of a business,” curator Kathryn Hall says about the industry. Before place less strip malls and their bland marquees were the default, hand painted signs defined a business; today, a return to the craftsmanship and authenticity of manually produced signage is everywhere from magazines to, apparently, museums.
The exhibit is an outgrowth of a 7-year passion project from Faythe Levine and Sam Macon who first produced a book and then a feature-length documentary, Sign Painters. HCCC gathered artists to display the traditional 1-Shot enamel, gilding, lettering enamel and other common sign painting techniques. A free handed wall by McCloud was the first thing to catch my eye with its vibrant colors and old-time feel. “The wall is an homage to the history of sign painting,” Hall says, “as well as different types of styles.”
McCloud mostly uses 1-Shot enamel—probably the gold standard for sign painting in terms durability and vibrancy. Hall says the name is self-explanatory: “The idea of 1-Shot enamel is that you don’t have to continue layering color and waiting for the paint to dry you have ‘one shot’ to produce something,” she says. “The 1-shot enamel also gives it a sort of wet look. [It] looks like you can touch it and that paint would instantly be on your hands.”
What's unique about this exhibit is how it will evolve throughout its three-month run. New Orleans sign painters Vince Mitchell and Yvette Rutledge changed their plans to respond to Hurricane Harvey. Other painters such as Bob Behounek from Chicago worked with the curators to create something that you might find at a local grocery story, giving the exhibit some Texas flare—Topo Chico and all. Finally, once a month, artist demonstrations will fill the walls with new signs; starting Friday, Oct. 13, Norma Jeanne Maloney will create a life-size building a free-standing billboard inside the gallery of HCCC.
For Hire: Contemporary Sign Painting in America, thru Jan. 7. Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main St. 713-529- 4848. More info at crafthouston.org.