Sierra Romesburg sat down with artist Shelby Rodeffer to get the inside scoop on the art and business of sign painting. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Sierra Romesburg
When most people hear the words sign painter, the image of an old guy armed with a paintbrush comes to mind.
In urban areas like Chicago, it’s common to see what are known as “ghost signs” fading away on the walls of brick buildings. Think: the Brunswick Corporation’s logo on the side of 623 South Wabash or the Belair Hotel advertisement that was uncovered in Lakeview as if it had been enclosed in a time capsule (when the building next to it was demolished). The old disappearing ghost signs can make it feel as if the art of sign painting has vanished, especially in the digital age. It hasn’t. Artist Shelby Rodeffer recently shared her thoughts on the revival of the cottage industry.
Shelby Rodeffer orders a chai tea latte at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in West Loop, where she and I are meeting for the first time. Her short purple hair peeks out from underneath a gray beanie, her face is framed with black glasses and a septum ring. She’s that classic kind of cool—not trying to be anything but herself, and she has an incredibly dynamic portfolio of work to back it up. Shelby is a fine artist, letterer, and sign painter—the opposite of the old man with the brush.
She is one of a growing number of artists who are revitalizing sign painting in Chicago. I ask about what drew her to an art form that many would consider to be already long gone or dying out.
“I’m originally from Nashville, and I was working there as an artist’s assistant in letterpress,” she says. “I wasn’t very good at it because I’m more big picture—heavy hands, improvisation while letterpress is about precise measurements, dialing things in and repeating the process over and over again. That’s not really who I am as a person.”
As Shelby explains, letterpress printing was “this super niche thing that required you to invest so much time and money into equipment. [Then] the Sign Painters documentary came out by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon. I tell people I’m one of the baby boomers from the Sign Painters movie. [Laughs] No one was really highlighting sign painters before that  documentary. Because they did the groundwork, they pushed sign painting into the general vernacular.”
I ask Shelby what she means by “baby boomer”; she tells me how she threw herself into that world: “I bought whatever books I was able to find, watched a lot of YouTube tutorials, and painted a number of small storefronts in the Nashville area. I knew Chicago had a couple of lettering and sign painting schools, and that people had been successful with it here. It was a good place to show up and try something out. If it blows up in your face, it’s like, ‘Well, that wasn’t so bad.’”
Shelby operates her sign painting business, called Finer Signs (Instagram @finersigns), out of her studio in West Loop with her partner, Julian, a graphic designer. Julian has been teaching himself gold leaf gilding, something Shelby describes as “a niche inside of a niche” and the alchemic version of sign painting.
Gilding is undergoing its own mini revival. David Smith, a British artist who specializes in glass signs and decorative mirrors, has been spreading the word of gilding through his YouTube videos. Since the early 1990s, Smith’s workshop has produced modern signage and period inspired pieces for a broad range of clients, from whiskey producers to film studios.
“He has shown a lot of people what gilding is,” Shelby says. “He did the art for a John Mayer album, and the video [of him making the album cover] was on Reddit and showed his process of gilding. I guess we can thank John Mayer for sharing the good word of gilding!”
So, what exactly is gilding? “It’s gold leaf applied to a surface,” Shelby continues. “The crème de la crème of sign painting is water gilding, or mirror gilding, where you make a mixture of water and gelatin.” The process involves bringing the water to a very low simmer to create steam, then adding gelatin. “You add just the right amount of gelatin and flood the glass. Using a static charge—plus grease from your own hair—you float an incredibly thin sheet of gold leaf toward the glass, and [the gold] slaps itself onto [the glass], stretches, and the gelatin brings out every wrinkle in the gold as it dries [to create] a mirror finish.” (I can’t help but blurt out, “What the fuck?!” We both start laughing.) “Yeah, so you can make a mirror with gold.”
When Shelby describes how the gilding process works, it really does sound like alchemy: “A lot of signs have matte centers with outlines of mirror gild. We have a ton of that technique here in Chicago, like at the Monadnock Building, which is kind of a famous stop for sign painters coming into town.”
The Monadnock Building, the world’s largest office tower when it was completed in 1893, is both a Chicago Architectural Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit committed to preserving significant structures nationwide, also has its Chicago offices inside the building. New tenants are required to honor traditional architecture and design elements when upgrading spaces for modern use. “Like, if a Supercuts moved in there, they’d have to get a gold leaf sign,” Shelby says. “Really, really cool. It’s cool that people care.”
Curious about gender dynamics in such a niche industry, I ask Shelby whether there are any concerns over sexism in her world. “There’s definitely age-old sexism, just like in any industry,” she says. “Meredith from the Pre-Vinylite Society [an international network of sign painters and enthusiasts launched in 2010 by a Boston-based sign-making duo, Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian] has actually done research on this topic. A lot of sign painters back in the day were part of unions...and women were not part of unions.”
“I feel like when someone says ‘sign painter,’ it’s so easy to envision an older, working-class white male,” Shelby says. “When we bring up that critique to the older generations, they’ll say, ‘Well, I never purposefully shut anyone out.’ But, honestly, other people were just never let in the door. Like sure, maybe you wouldn’t have cared if the junior sign painters were Japanese-American, let’s say, or a woman, but it’s a bigger problem than just calling out individuals.”
Shelby notes that historically, many women likely quit sign painting because of unsafe working conditions, particularly if they were pregnant. “A lot of women quit before they had children because they had no idea how [the inks and other materials] were going to affect people,” she says. “It was a unique problem. It was kind of a ‘If you can’t take the heat’ kind of thing. ‘If you have special requirements, maybe this isn’t a good job for you.’”
Today more women have stepped into the realm of sign painting in general, with a broader spectrum of people taking up the brush. Social media, video sharing, and documentaries like Sign Painters have helped guide young artists toward the traditional industry. Shelby believes sign painting will become less of a niche as time goes on: “There’s a sign painter for everyone.”
As we finish our drinks, I ask her what she looks forward to in the coming year. The answer is something we can all relate to: balance. For Shelby, that means finding a better way to juggle both sign painting and her other talent: fine art (shelbyrodeffer).
We get ready to leave, and a barista behind the counter calls out, “Wait! You’re our sign painter, right? Please, take a bag of coffee on us.” Shelby smiles and politely grabs a bag. As we exit Stumptown, where Finer Sign’s gold leaf script is delicately placed in foil on the front windows, the image of the old man with the brush has completely left my mind. A new generation of sign painters is carrying on the craft.