Sign Painters Shines A Colorful Light on the History of a Hidden Craft

Faythe Levine and Sam Macon are the minds behind Sign Painters.

For filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, an in sign painting was born one day when Levine happened to observe a sign painter changing the hours on a restaurant's window with a paint brush. Through the film Sign Painters -- which screens for one night only tomorrow evening, August 26, at the Sie FilmCenter -- the collaborators dug deep, interviewing active sign painters of all ages about this everyday occupation and art form. The oral, anecdotal history and visual impact of sign painting on the American landscape are equally explored in this documentary about a once-ubiquitous handmade trade.

In advance of the film's showing, Westword spoke with Macon about how he and Levine tackled the exploration of a craft that has very little written history available.

See also: Kevin Hennessy on making folk art and other signs of the time

Westword: This is addressed at the beginning of the film, but it seems that the everyday person might not even realize that signs are created by human beings -- not everything is computer-generated. Why did you decide that this was a story you wanted to tell?

Sam Macon: That fact itself was a big motivating source for me. Faythe and I have been longtime collaborators, and sign painting was something she had thought about (making a film about) for a long time. Essentially, Faythe had a group of younger friends back in Minneapolis who were interested in letters and they ended up, basically through happenstance, meeting the gentleman in the film named Phil Vandervaart. He's a Minneapolis-based sign painter. He was changing the hours on the cafe that they were hanging out at, and it was kind of like this realization that he was a sign painter -- and a realization that the entire neighborhood of the West Bank in Minneapolis was painted by this one guy. He totally dominated the visual landscape.

Fast-forward twelve, fifteen years -- Faythe brings this up to me. I'm like an amateur graphic designer and I've always appreciated lettering and font-nerd stuff. I had always gravitated towards interesting signage or had a appreciation for it, but I had never really put it together that it was a trade or an industry. I never knew that there were people who had this job or called themselves "sign painters." So it was really my own ignorance of that -- being a person who was probably more interested or tuned in than some -- and thinking, if I've never thought about this profession existing, a lot of people have not thought about it.

As we started making the film, I realized (in talking to others) that almost regardless of the age of the person, they didn't known sign painters existed. It wasn't just young people who had grown up in a world where significantly less people were making signs -- it's that even when it was the go-to way to get a sign made, people didn't know about it. It's something that went from being ubiquitous to almost non-existent. It was a trade that was happening all over the place, all of the time; signs are meant to convey information. They aren't really meant to be public works of art, though they have become that. This has been reinforced by the fact that (signage) looks so shitty and homogenized now.

I've had people tell me, 'your film ruined the way everything looks for me; I drive around and I get mad about the signs on any given street.' (Laughs.)

Obviously, you meet one sign painter and they talk about another sign painter. But how did you connect with the sign painters featured in the film? How did you choose whom to include?

There was a trick to it -- as a documentarian, one of the most satisfying things you can do is really contribute to a pool of information as opposed to packaging known information into a film. We were definitely able to do that because there is so little public documentation of it. There was such a lack of information it was almost shocking.

The way we approached the film was very journalistic; we didn't do a lot of pre-scripting. We knew we wanted to make a film that did right by the community, which we were only really beginning to learn about. And we also wanted to make a film that was interesting to the public and would be a conversation-starter. We knew we needed to be as comprehensive as possible in terms of styles, the modes within sign painting, showing a broad spectrum geographically and also, disciplinarian-wise.

Location Info


Sie FilmCenter

2510 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, CO

Category: Film

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Laura Phelps Rogers
Laura Phelps Rogers

The site specific installation/exhibit ENTERTAIN I did at RedLine in 2012 was tribute to this disappearing group of people: "letterheads" and their craft. I hope an opportunity arise to reinstall the work in another venue someday. The work handletterers do is amazing!

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