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 cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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