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Documentary at museum highlights the lost art of sign painting

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Documentary film "Sign Painters" at Contemporary Arts Center

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All around us these days, there are more signs than ever, promoting sales and stores and special events, but all of those signs are manufactured—sterile machine-cut vinyl letters on banners or ink-jet printed signboards. There’s no skill involved, and certainly no art. Most of the signs you see today don’t show the slightest attempt to create a design, much less make an eye-catching layout.

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It wasn’t always that way. Until 1982 (when the first vinyl-cutting plotter was invented), most signs were hand-lettered, or at least silk-screened from a design created by a commercial artist. The documentary film Sign Painters that was screened on Thursday, June 20, at the Contemporary Arts Center, Sixth and Walnut Streets downtown, gave the audience a glimpse into the history of sign painting and featured several dozen people who were masters of the craft, as well as a few people who are trying to keep the skills alive today.

Sign Painters, created by filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, interviews people across the country, from California to Chicago to right here in Cincinnati, who still paint signs by hand. Only three of them are women—it’s a man’s field, but it is nice to see women at least represented. It’s also a field in which there are few young practitioners, and those in their thirties who are painting signs almost seem to approach it with a reverence usually reserved for fine arts. The old guys are the most interesting ones to listen to and watch as they paint for the camera. (Even the credits and captions for the movie are hand-lettered signs, a nice touch.)

The old-timers have great stories, wistful memories of the heyday of the hand-painted sign, and some amazing skills with a brush and a can of One-Shot. If there is any fault to be found with the documentary, it is that it concentrates on sign men who use One-Shot, the type of paint most commonly used for outdoor signs. The men in the movie paint walls and windows and trucks, but there are also a few showcard painters who concentrate more on signs painted in tempera on colorful sheets of heavy hardboard, or showcard stock.

Showcards were once found in every restaurant, bar, and nightclub—at least in Cincinnati—promoting a featured menu item, an event, or the performers playing in the club. Different showcard painters had different styles, but they all had a flair that made their signs catch your eye as soon as you walked into the place. The individuality of the signs—and their makers—has been lost to the machine-made lookalike signs you see in most places today.

The documentary Sign Painters is well worth seeing if you are interested in the history of sign painting and how this commercial art form has all but faded away—quite literally. In the panel discussion after the movie at the Contemporary Arts Center, led by the filmmakers and Tod Swormstedt of the American Sign Museum located here in Cincinnati, they talked about the “ghost signs” from decades past that are still visible on the sides of many buildings around Cincinnati and across America.

There is another chance to see the movie Friday, June 21, when it will be shown at the University of Cincinnati, Room 4400 in the Aronoff Center, at 2:00 p.m. This screening is free and open to the public.

For more about the movie Sign Painters, visit the website for the movie, and to see some examples of the lost art of sign painting, put a visit to Cincinnati’s own American Sign Museum at 1330 Monmouth Street in Camp Washington.

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