As some members or people who are familiar with me may know, I have had an epiphany of sorts in getting back to analog. Pencil and paper, printing, brush and ink, paint. Combine that with a love for lettering and it led me to researching and learning about Sign Painting. I fell in love with this lost artform and the people who are still carrying the torch today to preserve it and carry it into the future. I wanted to see who was doing this in our state and as it turns out, not a lot of people are.
But one name kept popping up. Suzanne Bircher of She Paints Signs in Dunn, NC has never stopped painting signs even if just for the love of it. Suzanne will be in attendance at our Feb 27 Screening of Sign Painters at the Rialto Theatre (Get your tickets now!) and showing some of her work as well participating in a Q&A session after the film. She also painted a custom sign just for our event! We sent Suzanne some questions which she jumped right on. It’s a good read and is very telling of the state of Sign Painting as a profession in many areas today.
– Lenny Terenzi AIGA Raleigh Community and Volunteer Organizer
What sparked your interest in becoming a sign painter?
It was happenstance. I had never given sign painting any thought at all, until I was looking for a new job in my mid 20’s. I was always interested in crafts and in art and I was good at it. I majored in art in college but I did not graduate. There was a sign shop 3 blocks from my apartment in Charlotte NC in the early 1970’s. I went by and asked if they were hiring.
How did you go about getting training as a sign painter?
The owner of the sign shop was a Cuban immigrant named Julio Guerra. He came to the US playing professional baseball. He said he saw a sign painter in a baseball park and decided he want to learn how to paint signs. I don’t know how he learned it. His commercial sign business was well established in Charlotte at that time. He did lots of real estate signage, painted and screen printed by hand.
The shop was in an old worn out, one story building behind a drugstore in a historic neighborhood downtown. I think it attracted a camaraderie of Spanish speaking men from around the city because Julio’s friends often stopped by. I don’t speak but a few words of Spanish, but his English was good. He was a good teacher. I would like to say that I am grateful to Julio. Learning how to paint signs has had a major impact on my life. He said he had learned the hard way that he could not hire anyone until they could handle lettering brushes. I practiced on my own time in the afternoons for about a month and then he said he would hire me.
Beginners started out painting large words like “FOR SALE”, filling in patterns on big 4×8 signs. Big signs are read from a distance and therefore small mistakes with poor brushwork can’t be noticed much. I was lucky because I was a fast learner. I was told it could take several years to get pretty good at painting signs. It took me about a year. I moved on to another sign shop for my 2nd year of painting signs. Then I started having people asking me directly to paint signs for them. I never set out to be in business for myself, but there I was, self employed as She Paints Signs. I moved to Beaufort NC in 1983 and started my sign business back up there.
What are some of the greatest challenges you have had?
In the 1970’s and 80’s I never had to look for sign painting work. My advertising was by word of mouth and I had all the signs I could paint. I got spoiled I must say. I stopped painting signs to be a stay at home mother and to work for my ex-husband around 1986. I assumed I would start my sign painting business back up later on. I was wrong. My greatest challenge has been that computer generated vinyl stick on signs took over the sign industry. My sign painting business never fully recovered even though I tried.
Where does your inspiration come from?
People acquire many talents and skills. When we get good at one or more of our talents we want to keep creating new things. I take pride in my work, whatever I am creating—painting, woodworking, sewing, cooking, whatever. It sometimes does not pay however to be too much of a perfectionist for commercial work, because in the working world time is money. I had/have a personal goal of trying to make my signs 10% better than necessary (if that makes any sense). If I ever had a customer that was dissatisfied with one of my signs I was never made aware of it. I always tried to provide high quality and fair prices.
I have a collection of books that I can use for inspiration if I am trying to design a unique sign, and there is always the internet too.
What are some of your favorite tools for the creative process?
Books and sketching.
What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
I am mostly retired at this point. I wish sign painting was still in demand here.
Who are your sign painting idols?
Too many to list. I have found some excellent sign painters through Facebook as well as in Facebook Groups.
Can you share an interesting bit of the history of sign painting?
I wrote this is on my website… http://ncsignpainter.com/about_sign_painting
Who are your clients? Why do they choose sign painting?
My last 2 clients were couples restoring historical homes in Virginia and in NC. They wanted their house signs to be authentic and hand painted.
What would like to see for the future of sign painting?
I think that sign painting is well on its way to recovering from threatened obsoletion. It is morphing into a form of the graphic arts as a new niche market. It is appealing to people that appreciate art, traditional craftsmanship, and history. It will no longer be just an ubiquitous commercial trade skill.
There seems to be a resurgence in hand crafted work going on, including sign painting, how has that impacted your work?
Sign painting is seeing a renaissance. In different cities and in different parts of the USA (also around the world) we are seeing this renewed interest in sign painting bloom at much different rates in different places. Areas that have a thriving appreciation for the arts and culture will embrace sign painting the most readily. Wealthy patrons have traditionally supported the arts. Small towns and rural areas may never see sign painting recover.