CHICAGO — In 2012, people worldwide received an intimate view into the American industry of sign painting with the release of a book that profiled over two dozen contemporary painters. Authors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon then followed up with Sign Painters, a documentary of the same name that showcased how the tradition is making a comeback to combat the banal lettering of vinyl applications. But while readers and viewers were increasingly appreciating this ubiquitous yet often overlooked art form, others found the information circulating problematic for one aggravating reason: the artists profiled were almost all men.
Filling that gap is an exhibition that recently opened at Chicago Art Department. The first of its kind, The Pre-Vinylette Society: An International Showcase of Women Sign Painters is inspiring, with a vibrant display of over 60 women sign painters from nine countries around the world.
Its curators are two women with their own hand-painted sign shops: Meredith Kasabian, co-founder of the Boston-based Best Dressed Signs, and Shelby Rodeffer, of the Chicago-based Finer Signs. Kasabian also started the Pre-Vinylite Society, a loose network of sign painters and enthusiasts, a few years ago; the exhibition’s title riffs off its name with a play on the suffix “ette” — a morpheme that tends to also suggest that women are inferior to men, as the curators explain.
In this thoughtful show, it’s women on top, with a wide range of artists represented. There’s work by women who have been painting since the ’70s as well as by those with just a few years of experience under their belts. While a number have followed the more traditional route of attending a trade school, others are self-taught, and a number even switched gears from graphic design. Many, like the curators, own their own businesses.
As you might expect, most of the signs on view assert female power and women’s rights, from a springing deer by Kelly Golden emblazoned with the demand, “Listen to Women” to the many visualizations of phrases popularized in the Trump era — a “Stay Nasty” sign by Brooklyn-based design firm Dirty Bandits; “The Future is Female” by California painter Ashley Fundora“; and the Audre Lorde-inspired “Women are Dangerous and Powerful” by Rachel Millar, who hails from Glasgow. Still others are apolitical, including Debra Styer‘s sign for an optometrist store and a beautiful gold leaf-embellished glass sign by Sarah Linkus that simply celebrates waffles.
Signs in all forms are to be found here: aside from conventional wall pieces, there’s a condom machine that Marissa Cianciulli painted with a cheeky message as well as a massive mobile by Remedios Rapoport comprised of multiple signs. The Portland-based artist’s slow-turning structure dangles demands like “Vote” and “Make Love, Use Birth Control” over your head, revealing new messages every few seconds. And beyond the gallery space, three dynamic murals by Rodeffer, Tone Emblemsvåg, and Anna Frederick announce the show to passersby.
Feminist messages or not, these works all assert a woman’s rightful place in the sign-painting business. Aside from being part of a male-dominated trade, women sign painters are often in a male-dominated space. During a panel last weekend, many of the artists mentioned that they are almost always the sole woman on a team working on a commission.
In Kasabian’s experience, she often encounters “little micro-aggressions that happen almost every single time I’m on a job site” — from a man asking if she knows how to use a harness to the very frequent lack of access to a toilet. “And they build up,” she said. “It is hard to assert yourself too, because if you assert yourself then you’re a bitch. It’s a really hard thing to balance.”
In other words, gender performativity is a near-constant, and at times, even necessary. As Omaha-based painter Sharon Davis put it, “The job you’re on might get you the next job. So you always have to think about how you’re presenting yourself — in a different way than guys even have to think about.”
The tradition of American sign painting is male-dominated, but it’s typically also very white — a makeup this exhibition reflects, with less than a dozen artists of color included. The demographic is largely the result of barriers to access to apprenticeships and trade schools; sign painting’s culture of secrecy, in which techniques are closely guarded and passed to trusted students, doesn’t help the diversity issue, either.
Rodeffer and Kasabian addressed this problem during the panel, and asked the artists what they can do to improve accessibility to people from diverse backgrounds. Volunteer to teach workshops at a local arts center, Davis suggested, particularly one that caters to low-income communities. LA-based painter Nisha Sethi emphasized the value of the prison-to-school pipeline, describing how sign painting classes at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College include many students of color partly because of the college’s programs for formerly incarcerated individuals. The conversation was brief, but made clear that while the gender gap is shrinking, other disparities are prevalent.
LA Trade-Tech is now the last remaining trade school for sign painting, but individuals are stepping in to fill the roles institutions once provided. Increasingly, with the aid of the internet and social media, secrets are being shared, and sign painters are supporting each other across geographic borders. The Pre-Vinylette Society is a feminist show, but it’s also more than that. It stands as an assertion of sign painting as a thriving and evolving trade — one that comprises a growing network of artists across generations and regions, who are literally making it their business to improve their communities with one-of-a-kind creations.
As painter Kelley Bell, who runs a business with her daughter, simply said, “It’s so nice to see all these young women and older women … I don’t feel so alone.”
The Pre-Vinylette Society: An International Showcase of Women Sign Painters continues at Chicago Art Department (1932 South Halsted #100, Chicago, IL) through September 28.