We see them every day, but don’t take note of them. A product of 150 years of American history, hand-painted signs are a natural part of the American streetscapes. But what was once a common trade has now become a highly specialized craft competing with modern technology. We met with Forrest Wozniak – a carpenter and mason turned sign painter – to talk about his mission to preserve American craftsmanship.
Forrest, how does a carpenter turn into a sign painter?
In my twenties, my friends and I hitchhiked through the USA on freight trains. These trips were low budget adventures. It was in Olympia, Washington that we started painting on rusty objects for fun, but it soon became obvious that we’d be able to actually make a viable living with this if we’d make it more available to the general public. Painting signs was the obvious next step. The thing is… you can’t travel the country as a carpenter the same way you can as a sign painter. You can travel with your toolbox – with your primaries, your blacks and whites, and a couple of brushes – and you could be in Idaho and still have a way to pay for gasoline and food.
So you‘re an autodidact?
I come from a generation in which vocations weren’t really taught. In those days, we had no actual knowledge and just played around with sign painting. What we did was fundamentally unsound. Things changed when I met Phil Vandervaart, an old-timer in the sign-painting industry. He was to be my oracle, the wise man in the cave, who helped channel my understanding of sign painting from a fundamental knowledge perspective. Phil himself was trained in the 60’s, when there were outlets to really learn the trade. He passed on his knowledge to me. In return, I brought a youthful spirit and drive to the table. We started working together on and off, and still do today. It’s been 14 years now.
What has Phil taught you?
Phil taught me to stick to some of the tried and true knowledge. These fonts have been around for more than a hundred years, so there’s enough to work with to gain your knowledge from what already exists. You’ll know when you’re ready to start creating your own fonts.
How does your experience as a carpenter and mason influence your artistic work?
I am still that craftsman! Sign painting is not my natural talent. My strong suit really is painting big signs on buildings, actually being up high on the building. It allows me to take in the building and its architecture and complement that with my signage. I don’t think that’s the same as the average American sign painter who paints on boards that then get screwed to a building. I approach it as an industrial art, not as gallery art. I am out in the elements.
Can you describe the beauty of ‘signs’?
I haven’t been fortunate enough to travel the world, so I look at it from the American perspective. I think every American has memories of travelling the country and the hand painted signs provide an example of the American landscape. They’re everywhere from Coney Island to Baptist churches. Without the signs, we would really lose the American landscape. In that sense, sign painters take on the responsibility of harvesting culture.
Your work can be considered public art. How do you feel about that exposure?
If that had been my wish, I would have become an actor or something. But I really love anonymous public art. It is a convenient way to become renowned. You kind of leave these anonymous gifts all over the city.
Do you feel responsible for the state of the landscape?
I work for the small independent people; the anti-corporate response to free enterprise. Probably the biggest issue with capitalism is that it is aesthetically not very pretty. So for me to be able to play a role in making the countryside look a little better… I almost feel like a political figure in that way. Make the world a little better looking; make it a little cooler. I don’t know if sign painting was my natural heaven-sent trajectory, but I try to embrace it and apply it to my philosophies.
What are those philosophies?
I try to live by a simple philosophy: fashions come and go but style is eternal. I employ the tried and true methods that manage to stand the test of time. They can stand a black and white photo, or a colored photo and they won’t be era-d like a fashion would be. My work cannot be fashionable; I try for it to be in style.
People tend to prefer the old faded signs to a brand new painting. Would you agree?
I like the old faded signs, too. But all paint will fade. If you were to ask the old-timer who painted it, were he alive today, he would say: “Repaint it with the best quality paint you can find.” Preservation and neglect are dangerously close together. What I would like to do is employ the old ways, the timeless knowledge, today.
How do you see your business twenty years from now?
I am not the first and I won’t be the last sign painter. The younger generation has such entitlement for independence that they don’t seek any guidance. They are sort of just painting large printed formats provided by the designers, without feeling any obligation to toil in all the fundamental knowledge. Nevertheless, I do my best not to judge, in hopes that sign painting becomes a very obvious viable option to businesses outside of these sort of urban hip circuits I operate in. I hope that it really becomes a platform that people understand they have as an option. So, the more the merrier. In twenty years I want to be helping young people become sign painters.
Hope… that makes it sound like you have doubts about the future of sign painting.
Sign painting goes hand in hand with all the arts and crafts that are the resurgence of tons of things that are done by hand. There is a huge cultural popularity for Red Wing Boots, hand painted signs, and organic farms. People are starting to acknowledge we probably won’t make it too far without genuine crafts. Hope may not sound right, because I have seen it working.
What would your advice be to the next generation?
I get a lot of kids asking me for advice on their sign painting. And none of them really know the fundamentals of the craft. They don’t know how to use a tape measure, ruler, or ladder. I am starting to realize that the advice I should be giving them is to go get a job with a roofing crew for a year and then tell me if they can hold on to it. You’re up high, you’re off balance, and you have to be able to do what a boss needs you to do. They just need to learn work ethic first. The standard has shifted to a more academic work ethic. When I finished school, I went straight into labor. From my world (the working class), that would be my recommendation. Sign painting is closer related to masonry and roofing than it is to design and art.