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.