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Monday, 07 October 2013 00:00

'Sign Painters' reveals what's behind the serifs

'Sign Painters' reveals what's behind the serifs signpaintermovie.blogspot.com
Written by Martha K. Baker
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About this Media...

  • Director: Levine & Macon
  • Dates: Plays only Oct. 10, 2013

"Sign Painters" is a documentary that raises the quintessential post-doc question: "Who knew?" Behind every sign is a painter -- at least, behind signs not slapped together with vinyl letters from a computer. Those painters are opinionated, fiercely in favor of the real thing. They value their history and their art but they know, realistically, that their work is always for someone else.

"Sign Painters" provides an anecdotal history of this craft of advertising -- on bill boards, on show cards at the talkies, in gold leaf on a doctor's door. In 2010, the filmmakers, Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, interviewed dozens of sign painters, mostly men and most of them real characters. Men like Ernie Gosnell, who cusses and talks way non-standard English. Men like Gary Martin, who drives around Austin, pointing out his best work. Nick Barber of Southern California swears sign painting is the best job next to "taste-tester for Sara Lee." The Otises, Mark and Rose were instrumental in forming a sign painters' group called The Letterheads. The group's motto is reduced to the initials "IOAFS" for "It's Only a Sign" (you can fill in the f blank).

John Downer distinguishes between fonts and type faces: fonts work in a system whereas lettering shows "warmth and individuality." Norma Jeanne Maloney in Austin and Marjory Garrison in L.A. agree with the men that "When we're making signs, we're making money for other people."

Throughout the film,, Levine and Macon's interviewed more than 2 dozen sign painters all over the United States, from the Big Apple to the Fitzgerald Theater in Minneapolis to the sign museum in Ohio. The filmmakers intersperse the work of two older men on ladders to paint a sign on a brick wall in Mazeppa, Minn. They let painters, including Keith Knecht, who died in 2011, describe what they go through to market their wares to potential clients who don't understand that a sign painter actually paints.

Levine and Macon show close-ups of paint cans and brushes in studios as well as the ladders and cables on tall buildings. They cleverly use accelerated motion of hands moving lickety-split to turn a blank into an ad. They capture vintage signs, inside and out, and lovingly letter the names of each talking head in the lower right-hand corner of the interview. Bill Marmor edited the documentary with panache.

"Sign Painters" plays only one night, October 10, at the Tivoli Theatre at 7 p.m. The film is sponsored by Ben Kiel, who designs type for his St. Louis company Typefounding. The film pays fine homage to an often invisible art.  

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