Chester Martin Remembers The Sign Painter's Art

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 - by Chester Martin

While at Kirkman Vocational High School before 1950, I had selected Commercial Art as my major subject. In that school you could spend a half-day in your "Shop" (major subject) and the other half in purely Academic subjects. Kirkman was a fully-accredited high school, meaning that any graduate could go on to University or College.

I entered Kirkman with an open mind, realizing that there was much to learn, and I was "standing at the Threshold of Knowledge." Drawing was high on the list of things to learn, as drawing is the fundamental backbone of all Academic art.

Modern Art was only getting a toe-hold in America at that time, therefore most art classes emphasized "Academics." Drawing, Perspective, Anatomy, and Color Theory were the hot items to learn and master. When you had some skills in these subjects you could move on to more specific things such as Advertising Art, which had its own sub-topics like "wash" (Gouache) drawing, ink drawing, scratchboard, airbrush, etc. A fine Chattanooga artist, Mr. Sherman Paul, had, years before, designed the layout of our Kirkman art department to include some very modern amenities, such as real airbrush equipment. Today we can pull up  various photo programs on our computers which have an "airbrush" feature that will give you stunning results without spilling a drop of color, or "spitting" at just the wrong moment. An air-compressor in our shop's locker-room supplied air to a number of work-stations.

Not even the best art teacher can have expertise in every phase of a highly comprehensive program such as ours, Other phases of "Art at Kirkman" included hand-lettering because every department store in America required "Show Cards," which were most economically done in their store art departments by highly skilled artisans. A person who could do beautiful hand lettering at a "commercial pace" could command a high salary, and these individuals jealously guarded their "trade secrets". That meant, politely, that they did not want anyone to watch them at work.  But we needed to see!

I remember the first time I got brave and confident enough to actually visit a "real" art department - and it was at either Miller's or Loveman's here in Chattanooga. Art departments were frequently sealed away from public areas so as to avoid prying eyes which could lead to a disturbing interruption of work. Everybody wanted to see the artists and what they were working on. I therefore first had to determine where the art deparment actually was, as several "No Admittance" doors led back into a labyrinth of shelves where all manner of supplies were kept. Maybe some store personnel pointed the way - with the inevitable disdainful look of "what is that kid doing in here, anyway?" Rules were a lot stricter back then than today.

The actual entrance to where the artists worked was a four-foot-wide passageway between  loaded shelves on left and right. A counter top that could be raised or lowered blocked the entry. You were apparently supposed to ring a bell and wait to see if anyone would come out. Did I actually ring the bell? I can't even remember; all I do remember is that as I stood there surveying the scene. I started looking upward on the jamb of the entrance, and saw to my great consternation a very neatly hand-lettered show-card that read simply, "Don't Go Away Mad - Just Go Away!" My ego instantly deflated, and I turned around, crestfallen, and did just as the sign said...!

Somewhat later, in my earliest university years, I helped a sign painter for two summers - Mr. Charles A. Regan, a member of our church. He was extremely good at all phases of the sign-painter's craft - equally good at very small work, or very large. I learned a lot of useful things  from him. I once helped him move bulky equipment to paint signage all around the top of the old Fleetwood Coffee Company building on East 11th Street. On the side facing 11th Street, on the east, there was a two- or three-story high space of uninterrupted brick, ideal for the rendering of a giant bag of their coffee, (still barely visible in 2015). I helped him maneuver the block and tackle and scaffolding, and then prepare his colors to the correct painting consistency. The imprint of an earlier, faded rendering were his only guidelines. Sad to say, (but wisely) he wouldn't let me go near the scaffold, and so did all the painting alone...

But Mr. Regan had ONE trick in his bag that he did best, and jealously guarded: it was gilding! - working with near-pure 23 karat gold leaf. You will think I am lying when I tell you that a four-inch square sheet of gilder's gold is thin enough to see through. One tiny breath of air can send it flying, irretrievably, across the room! For this reason, most likely, he did not want me to see how he controlled it, and never once let me see him at working at it. When I would leave his shop in the afternoon there would be no hint that he was going to be doing any gilding, but next morning, there  would be a beautifully hand-lettered sign - on glass - or wood - brilliantly resplendent in the morning light, and so very frustrating for a young man who wanted to learn - just as the desire to see the "real" artists at work in the department store art department.

Times HAVE changed for the better today, and today's student has nothing more to do than make a fast Google search to turn up a dozen or more experts on YouTube who seem to be in competition with one another to show everything they know on any topic!

There is no more need to ever "go away mad" anymore! How different the world of today!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

Remembering Rev. T. Perry Brannon's Radio Revival

Signal Mountain Genealogical Society Meets Dec. 4

Georgia Trust Announces 2019 List Of State’s 10 ‘Places In Peril’

I recently came upon a booklet that Rev. T. Perry Brannon gave me in 1986 when he was a guest on my radio program and it brought back a lot of memories. His Radio Revival started in ... (click for more)

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society will be celebrating the Christmas Season with a covered dish luncheon on Tuesday, Dec. 4. The event is for members only. Regular meetings will resume ... (click for more)

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation released its 2019 list of 10 Places in Peril in the state on Wednesday. Sites on the list include: Colquitt County Arts Center in Moultrie (Colquitt ... (click for more)


Remembering Rev. T. Perry Brannon's Radio Revival

I recently came upon a booklet that Rev. T. Perry Brannon gave me in 1986 when he was a guest on my radio program and it brought back a lot of memories. His Radio Revival started in 1930. It was on WDOD every morning at 8 a.m. until switching in the 50’s to WAPO. The program went off the air in the 70’s when Bro. Brannon moved to Birmingham, Ala. T. Perry Brannon ... (click for more)

Signal Mountain Genealogical Society Meets Dec. 4

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society will be celebrating the Christmas Season with a covered dish luncheon on Tuesday, Dec. 4. The event is for members only. Regular meetings will resume in January. (click for more)

Breaking News

Truck Driver Charged In Death Of Another Truck Driver In Head-On Crash Near Trenton

A tractor-trailer driver from Pennsylvania was charged on Friday in the death of another truck driver. The Dade County Sheriff's Office said Gustavo Rodriguez-Pagan was driving on Interstate 59 near Trenton when a head-on crash occurred. His vehicle crossed the median and struck another tractor-trailer. Authorities said they found Rodriguez-Pagan walking around the accident ... (click for more)

Girl Injured In 5-Vehicle Crash On I-24 Near Wildwood Exit

A young girl was critically injured in a five-car crash on I-24 in Dade County on Saturday. The accident was near Exit 169 at Wildwood. Authorities said a roll-back tow truck that was hauling two vehicles struck a van with a family inside. The van then struck three other vehicles. The wreck happened just before noon. The girl was found unresponsive in the van. (click for more)


HES Can't Be Matched, Replicated Or Cheaply Duplicated

As a volunteer at the Humane Educational Society for four years, I have first-hand knowledge of the work this organization does and the conditions it has to overcome to do it. The 118-year-old facility in which the administration, staff and volunteers work every day is at the end of its road. A new shelter space is more than warranted. The good news is that there are county funds ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: A Thanksgiving Opener

Ever so often my dear friend Dale Brown, the former LSU basketball coach, will include me as he shares his wonderful thoughts, occasional devotions, and glittering ideas how we should be our best every day. Dale is an expert at motivation yet he’s got a friend whose insight I’ve grown to adore. When Dale was at LSU, he signed a stunning basketball player named Johnny O’Bryant III ... (click for more)