September 30, 2014

Andrew & Kelsey McClellan, the Heart & Bone of Sign Painting

Andrew and Kelsey McClellan are the couple behind Heart & Bone Signs, a traditional sign-painting and gold-leafing company in Chicago, Illinois. At the Renegade Craft Fair, Andrew happened to overhear me mention sign painter, Ches Perry, who also works in Chicago and has been designing and hand-painting signs since the 1970s.

The introduction by Andrew to Heart & Bone Signs, and their dedication to historic techniques affiliated with one of the oldest craft-disciplines in the United States, led to this interview. Here, they share their strong enthusiasm for sign painting, keenly done by hand.

On being sign painters

How did you arrive at being a sign painter? Was there an initial encounter of work, related to sign painting, that played a role in what you do for a living?
We moved to Chicago, in 2011, to attend the graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for painting. Prior to moving, we lived in Denver, Colorado, where we met each other at the University of Colorado. In Denver, we were both painters, and had been asked on different occasions to paint signs or produce chalkboard signs. Once we graduated from SAIC, Kelsey was working at the Museum of Contemporary Art and came across the “Sign Painters” book by Levine and Macon. This really spurred a strong interest, and correlated to a lot of the work we were producing in the Fine-Arts realm. We reached out to a local sign painter, Stephen Reynolds, who was instrumental in showing us how to approach materials and techniques, specifically how to hold the quill and produce clean and uniform strokes, which is such an important part of this craft. From there, we came into contact with other local sign painters and began producing signs almost immediately. Fortunately, our mutual backgrounds in painting have provided us with a strong sense of paint and how to use it in various applications.

More recently, we have been apprenticing under Robert Frese, who is a local guilder. This has been a great experience, and we have fallen in love with the art of gold gilding, it’s almost magical at first. Like with everything, there is a learning process, in sign painting this is a constant: what’s most interesting, after a while, is how physical the act becomes, and how your reflexes are ignited when using the quill in contact with the surface of what you are painting. Understanding this, which was what we first gathered from Reynolds, really informs all of our work now—the pursuit of accuracy and speed. If you look at the history of sign painting, back when everything was painted, these attributes were the most desired in a good painter, we would both agree that is not far from what we seek to constantly achieve.

Who were your teachers and mentors in sign painting? 
How did you discover them, and vice versa, 
how did they discover you?
Stephen Reynolds was our first teacher, and more recently, we have been working with Robert Frese, although we have been fortunate to come into contact with a huge community of sign painters, whom we admire greatly, and are always learning from, based on the work they create and post. To name a few: New Bohemian Signs, Andrew Lawrence of Gentleman Scholars (both San Francisco), Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs (Boston), Ken Davis of Coolhandken (California), and David Smith (England). This list really does not do justice to all of the artists who inspire us, but it’s a good place to start.

Sign painting is growing as a cultural phenomenon. 
What are your takes on why this is happening?
It’s great! Most likely, there is a direct correlation with the inevitable deterioration of vinyl that is visible across the country. Sign Painting for a business not only reflects an overall aesthetic of craft and handiwork that seems to be popular at the moment, but also expresses, to the audience/consumer/community, that this establishment is here to stay. The paint we use and techniques we utilize are meant to withstand the elements and last forever—that’s why you can see, throughout the country, amazing ghost signs of work produced from the turn of the century. Basically, with a hand-painted sign, you are saying this place is meant to be here and stay here.

When did you find your business Heart & Bone Signs?
We’ve been sign painting under Heart & Bone Signs for about two years, in mid-October.

A common desire and question is: How to start? With this in mind: How did you start? What was the first thing you did? What were essential activities/steps taken to start and establish your company, and why were these activities/steps important?
We just jumped in, knowing we would probably mess up along the way, but not too worried to fail. In regards to running a small company, we are still learning and growing, always reaching out for new opportunities, and testing the boundaries of what we already do. The hardest part right now is finding time to push our creativity, since we most often are working on client projects.

From the documentary “Sign Painters,” the convenience of printing technology decreased sign painting’s prominence. How do you cope with technology as a competitor in the sign-painting world? And how do you put it into context in promoting your work to people with needs for signage?
We’ve only heard on a few occasions that a project would be cheaper to do in vinyl, which were learning experiences, and in some cases, only a few dollars short from a vinyl producer’s quote. Technology is frustrating at times to compete with, but it seems to work within a specific realm of consumerism that is large and way beyond our capacity as a two-person team. We like the intimacy of sign painting, knowing our clients, and being approached by passersby when doing our work. There is something very community-oriented about the process that other forms of sign production just do not have. This being said, we are the first to suggest another avenue that is better for the job than us, sometimes relief signage or vinyl is the way to go, and we are happy to work with our clients to establish what is best for their company.

Can you give a tour of how an idea, for a sign painting, gets real? For example, what were the steps and tools used to materialize the your sign for Jerry’s in Andersonville, Chicago (above)?
Often it starts with talking to the client, going on site, and really getting a feel for what they want. The Jerry’s piece is a great example, we met with the owners (who are awesome), and they described a piece that looked new, yet had been there for a while, and most importantly, would age well over time. We took their existing logo and reworked some areas of it, so that it would look timeless and easily readable amongst Chicago’s sign work. We formatted the lettering to work with the verbiage they chose, then we produced patterns, by hand, in the studio that we then bring to the site and transfer onto the building. In this case, the work was solid black, but often we do multi-colored pieces with outlines and shadows.

In your sign-painting toolkit, what is your frequently-used tool?
Other than quills and paint, it would be razor blades. Mainly used for cleaning lines, cutting tape, and everything in-between, it’s our form of a Swiss-army knife. If we show up on site and are missing a razor blade, we get pretty bummed out.

In between work for clients, how do you keep 
your sign-painting skills sharp?
Practicing lines and alphabets. We like to get a little competitive with one another and push new styles. Also reading is helpful, we’ve been lucky enough to come across some great resourceful books that we frequently go back to, as we develop as sign painters, including “Lettering Made Easy: How to Paint Signs and Show Cards” (1940) by E. C. Matthews and Phillip Albaum, and “Gold leaf techniques” (1980) by Raymond LeBlanc.

Hand-painting signs for Currency Exchange Café, Chicago. View more.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going to keep 
Heart & Bone Signs going?
Clients and other sign painters. There are some artists, throughout the country, who are really producing some amazing work. David Smith is someone we admire tremendously, he makes beautiful glass-gilded work. Colt Bowden is also doing really great work and produces a line of sign-painting zines, which are awesome to pick up. Josh Luke, of Best Dressed Signs, is also a favorite, his designs are amazing, and he utilizes color in a very fresh way.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?
It’s great to see financial growth, and could easily choose this as a signifier of growth, but honestly feel that becoming stronger sign painters—better with the brush, more intuitive design and color choices—is always the best sign (no pun intended) of growth for us.

How do you get the word out about Heart & Bone Signs? 
How do you attract customers?
We try to stay on top of social media, but are, overall, pretty bad at the Twitter game. We’ve found the best way to find new clients is through customer recommendations and word-of mouth.

I like your company’s name. How did you arrive at this?
Kelsey: Heart & Bone is a reference from Coxen Dodd, speaking about his house band at Studio One in Jamaica. The heart of reggae music is the bass, and the bones are the drums. These constitute the foundation of the musical style. Andrew played drums for a traditional reggae band in Denver, Colorado, called The Dendrites, for nine years. After moving to Chicago, we both missed the music scene so much, we bought a bass with our last few dollars after grad school and started playing music together. Once we started our Sign Painting Company, it fit perfectly with our collaborative style, the Heart & Bone of Sign Painting. We were slightly worried that it might be too visceral of a name, or not come across as a sign-painting name, but people have responded well to it, and oddly enough, we get a lot of musical references, specifically Neil Young, which we are totally OK with.

Is there a city where sign painting is most visible?
Definitely San Francisco! It’s amazing there, New Bohemia Signs specifically has done a great job as a shop to promote Hand-Painted Signs for the city. On the other spectrum would be New York, there are many talented Sign Painters there, but also Colossal Media produces large-scale advertisements that are placed on the sides of buildings, typically over 100-feet in height. They are crazy good, and it comes across so well in that environment. It would be cool to have a mixture of these two take place in Chicago.

On creativity and working

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
Andrew: My wife is always right. But in all seriousness, communication is incredibly important, we go back and forth with ideas non-stop, and if we question anything we are working on, we ask for one another’s thoughts. We also are not afraid to speak our opinion if something looks off, this can always cause some conflict, but the end-product is our main concern.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, 
and how did you deal with it?
Balance is hard, finding time in between projects to practice work creatively. It’s also hard wanting to expand, but being not knowing how or if it’s the right time. We also work out of a work/live space, this would fall into the expanding problem, and it is hard to separate home life from work life. Luckily, these are things we’ve struggled with as artists for a long time, so we have the skills to think about them constructively.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
Our workspace is in a room in our loft space in Pilsen. Ideally more space would be great, but honestly, the majority of what we do is onsite, so more space would not necessarily be the best option. Having our studio space at home is great, as we often work through the night, so the bed is never too far away.

What tools do you use and recommend to work: 
for collaborating, getting things done, and running your practice?
An important tool for our trade is the Electro Pounce. This is an indispensable tool for us. It is also hard to come by, as it is no longer produced. What it does is create perforated patterns in paper by means of an electronic stylus. It actually burns perfect dots into paper that are brought onsite and transferred onto the surface to be painted. You have to be careful when using it, however, it is easy to accidentally electrocute yourself with it.

It’s important to not put things off, always push through tough spots and aim to continue to produce work. This helps when collaborating, because we can hand projects off to one another, depending on our individual schedules and how busy we are. If you truly enjoy what you do, it seems like there is a moment, amidst the process, in which you find happiness or pleasure—this is true for both of us. Ultimately, the reward is shaking a client’s hand who is fulfilled with the end-result and hearing their appreciation for your work—this type of affirmation really keeps us going.

What kind of sign painting appeals to you? 
Who or what are your creative influences?
We were both influenced early on by graffiti. Later got really into renaissance style figurative painting, now focused primarily on sign painters/gold leafing as inspiration. We are pretty analog in our approach, but there is some amazing digital design work that is being produced, and it’s nice to stay on top of the trends there. 1960s Swiss design is also a favorite, in regards to its clean lines and approach to realism in depicting products. It’s also interesting to look at art movements like Dada or Futurism that employ design on a broader scale to communicate ideas. But if you were to look at who we follow, say Instagram, it’s mostly sign painters, graffiti writers, and tattoo artists—there is something to be said about the hand-drawn line.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
It’s everything. You can follow a book as much as you like, but sometimes, you have to go with your gut and use your own intuition to figure things out. Training your eye to see a certain way, depict color, see things evenly and level, mixing paints and solvents, all of this we employ on a daily basis, and it has to become instinctual or else your going to waste your time and the client’s.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to be a sign painter. 
How do I become one?”, what’s your response?
This happened a couple of times at Renegade, and we’ve been in contact with them since. Really, we suggest picking up some quills and start to familiarize yourself with the quill and your strokes. You really learn a lot through these simple gestures. Eventually begin practicing Egyptian and Script styles of lettering, but take your time, and get used to using the quill and the consistency of your paint. We always encourage people to find a mentor, or at least a peer group, to gain feedback from on your work, it’s really amazing the insight you can gain by just talking to other painters.

Chicago neighborhoods

How does the city of Chicago, Illinois, contribute to your work? What makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
Chicago is affordable. Not sure how people manage it in other large cities, but for any artistic person out there looking for a good start, Chicago comes highly regarded. Chicago also has a strong history of sign painting and gold leaf, of which is paralleled to the city’s amazing architectural history. You can see this all over town in various incarnations, there is also a huge group of show card/grocery store painters, in each neighborhood, who have intense style, and it’s been like that for generations. All of this spurs our interest, that on top of long winters, in which you get a chance to hone your craft and strengthen your brush skills.

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Images courtesy of Andrew and Kelsey McClellan, Heart & Bone Signs.

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Related: Read my interview with Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, who celebrate the American tradition of handcrafted signs in their documentary “Sign Painters.” See step-by-step photos of Ches Perry’s live demonstration of sign painting at 32nd gathering of CreativeMornings’ Chicago chapter—my write-up.

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