Keegan Meegan & Co.

Keegan Wenkman

Keegan Wenkman

The deeper I delve into the world of traditional sign-making, carving, gilding and hand-lettering, the clearer it becomes that print-making and sign-making are first cousins. Both industries are populated with passionate creatives who love typography, colour, hand-tools and old machinery.

Keegan Meegan Workshop

Keegan Meegan Workshop (image courtesy of Design Work Life)

Back when we interviewed Peter Vogel, the subject turned to a print-house in his city called Keegan Meegan & Co. The business is run by Keegan Wenkman and Katy Meegan, and continues to produce amazingly detailed handcrafted prints from a former paper factory. In today’s post Keegan tells us a little more:

You’re an illustrator, printer & designer. Which came first?

 Officially I went to school for web design during the flash craze of the early 2000’s. I hated it straight away and started talking with all the graphics and illustrator teachers. One in particular pulled me aside and took me to the library to show me a bit of history. He showed me the old master painters. So having said that, I was a oil painter for ages before I turned my rough drawings for paintings into a means to make a living. It wasn’t until I wanted to reproduce the drawings that I learned printmaking, which I took on with a fervor.

tumblr_m9iob6uR531qaik3do1_500

What prompted the move from Minneapolis to Portland?

 I was born in Fresno, Ca originally, so the west coast has always been in my blood. My parents moved to Madison, Wisconsin early in my life – a move I wasn’t too happy with. After finishing college in Minneapolis, I took the first opportunity to move west. Portland wasn’t the first choice but in the end to be a working artist, affordability of a home and studio was major factor.  I have no regrets. The city has been incredibly supportive and encouraging.

Poster by Keegan Meegan and Co.

(image courtesy of Seizure Palace)

On your blog you wrote ‘our printing is a throw-back to time when quality and beauty were a necessity in everyday life.’ Do you think this appreciation for authenticity is growing among people of our age bracket, or will it always be a small & committed group on the fringe, so to speak?

I’m not really sure what to say about quality these days. Some of us really care about the history of industry and manufacturing that is slowly disappearing from our modern landscape. Our current culture has a way of erasing all that is not current, people call letterpress or sign-painting a dead craft, but I have to disagree. It has always been around. It just wasn’t that special until the internet casts its gaze upon it. All of a sudden people get all bright-eyed and lusty for it, which – honestly – is good, allowing craftspersons to re-educate folks. Personally, for myself, I need to work with my hands. I’m just not happy working on a computer and love the mechanical problem solving one must do in a analog workplace. As for others, I believe people just want to connect to something more permanent and meaningful, such as a craft. It will make you quite a grumpy stubborn person – beware!

The Pressure is Good for You Poster

Poster designed by The Pressure & printed by Keegan Meegan (image courtesy of I am the Lab)

The Pressure Is Good For You – Poster Printing from Adam R Garcia on Vimeo.

The building I work from is an old paper manufacturer. The train tracks are still outside, that allowed each freight car to pull right up to our roll up doors. I believe it was built in the nineteen-twenties. The timber structure was salvaged from retired clippers. Going back to the last question, workers built the five-storey building made of wood and hand-laid brick in two weeks. Imagine that happening today!

Keegan Meegan Building

What’s the ‘Steamroller Smackdown’?

Traditionally, in recent history, when printing with a steamroller, those gatherings are called a ‘Wayzgoose’. A Wayzgoose formerly was gathering in each city, where the largest print house would throw a party and cook a nice fast goose for everybody. These days it a bunch of folks usually printing large sometimes five-by-four-foot hand-carved linoleum cuts.

Wayzgoose

One of Keegan’s prints at a wayzgoose in 2012

How did you come to love type & graphics?

I learned the now dead art of paste-up early on. Paste-up was how all design happened for ages – literally hand-composing type and graphics as cut-outs and pasting them in place. It’s a tedious yet loving endeavor,  since you learn to make most decisions about type and layout before you even touch the design. Over the years I’ve learned most things out of necessity for getting work. I don’t see that ending anytime soon.

Here’s a few more images from Keegan & Kate’s very artisanal workshop:

Letterpress

Woodtype

Printing Workshop

Linoleum Cut

Print

Keegan Meegan & Co.

Thanks Kate and Keegan!

Why Not Farm?

Heather & John

Heather & John

A few years ago, we made a classy little round sign for a place called ‘Whynot Farm on Snow Creek‘. Every year, we make hundreds of handcrafted farm signs, for customers ranging from tree-changers with a few acres of land to serious broad-acre ranchers. The Whynot Farm sign was a bit different, though. It had a well-designed logo and a name that sounded like a play on words. What sort of a farm was this? After a few emails with Heather Davis, I found out more of the story.

Whynot Farm Sign

Two years ago, Heather and her husband John studied sustainable farming under the tutelage of Joel Salatin, the self-described ‘Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer’ from Virginia. With the help of their sons, they bought a piece of land and started putting some of Joel’s techniques into practice.

(Heather): The farm consisted of 25 acres on Snow Creek in the Love Valley of the North Carolina Piedmont. ‘Whynot Farm on Snow Creek?’  It’s a question and a farm name all in one. Next came the chickens, pigs, alpaca herd (twenty-six head), sheep, geese, ducks, rabbits, quail, et-cetera. We are now supplying two chefs, four restaurants and dozens of local farmers’ market customers with delicious, pasture-raised, all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats for their discerning customers and families.

Whynot Farm Animals

And the Danthonia sign?  It was a wedding present from some dear friends, as was the chicken sculpture.

Sign & Chicken Sculpture Whynot Farm

Farm Shed & Sign

The logo was designed by Type Work Studio, in Buffalo New York.

(Heather): It was a fun project. We wanted a professional look for our new business so we invested in a logo, brochures, a professionally-designed website, stationery, etc. I believe these things create an appearance of gravitas, credibility and substance that every new business really needs.

Whynot Farm Logo

Whynot Farm Stationery

More recently, Heather & John decided to open a farm shop in nearby Love Valley. It’s a town like few others in twenty-first century North America. The population stands at ninety, and no cars are allowed within town limits – only horses, wagons and pedestrians. The Davis’s purchased the ‘Old Jailhouse’, a small wooden structure in the middle of town. Out of respect to the building’s history, Heather asked us to created a hand-painted, western-style sign to mount on the false front.

Love Valley, NC

(image courtesy of City Data)

This was our first serious hand-lettering job and naturally we had to include some carved & gilded type as well. Here’s a few images of the process:

The Pattern

The Pattern

Chalk Outlines

Since we don’t have a pounce wheel or electro-pounce, we simply applied white chalk to the back of the pattern, and then drew over every line firmly with a pen. This transferred the pattern to the panel. It’s a little hard to see in this photo but it worked.

Painting the first colour

Since we were using Dulux house paint, it took several coats to cover the black undercoat.

Hand-Painting Dude Font

Painting the drop-shadow effect

Adding the Lighter Red Accent

Adding the Lighter Red Accent

Paint Stencil

After the hand-lettering was finished,we used a paint stencil for the carved & gilded lettering (sorry purists).

Carving

Carving

Gilding

Gilding

Hand-Painted Wild West Sign

The Finished Sign

Old Jail House Sign

Pub Sign Detail

 

Ken Davis, Sign-Painter

Ken Davis Signpainter

Ken Davis

The name Ken Davis is not new to this blog, but – being his birthday today – it’s time we devoted a post to this very original sign-painter from Northern California.

What got you into sign-painting?

The short answer I give to strangers is I found something worth dropping out of community college for.

Hand-Lettered Bike for Benny Gold

Hand-Lettered Bike for Benny Gold

In reality, it’s been something that had been waiting for me all along.  I remember very early on noticing signage and typefaces in our town above anything else.  I wouldn’t draw a Metallica logo on a backpack I had unless I could guarantee it looked correct.  If it wasn’t right I’d never wear the backpack again. That neurosis of precision probably prepped me into hand lettering. I had been drawing letters for a while when a roommate told me to try using a brush and something called OneShot.  He clarified that it was a sign-painters enamel.  I bought the only two dusty old colors the art store nearby had (dark brown and ivory) and began fooling around.  I bought every single book I could find, I’d look up ISBN numbers and track down the rarer ones.  Within three years I had a good library, an understanding of old sign making, and little to no skill but a fire to learn and do some kind of justice to the craft.  Then I met Josh …
Josh [Josh Luke] and I began hanging out after we met at an art show he was in that my friends at Cyclops Tattoo held.  We both skated and Potrero Skate-park in San Francisco had just opened.  We would do morning sessions and I would follow him to Newbo and hang out for a tasteful amount of time and go home.  After a short while of this he called me up and mentioned that a space might be opening to take on an apprentice.  I got an early morning job in a produce department so I wouldn’t have to worry about food and began apprenticing.  It was a fast tracked one.  A few months into working with Josh, he and Meredith made plans to move to Boston.  That year I worked with Josh was invaluable.  He broke me of all my horrible habits that I had developed as a feral sign-painter.  Once Josh left, I had some large scale shoes to occupy and I did to the best of my ability.  As the shop became more renowned and successful I was able to work alongside some other really great people.  Eventually I saw my time was closing in there and moved towards going fully on my own.

Ken Davis

Ken Davis, at New Bohemia Signs (image courtesy of Austin McManus)

What’s the connection between skateboarding and sign-painting? A lot of the new sign-painters come from the skating background (for example Josh Luke, Yourself, Colt Bowden, and Will Sears, to name a few)

To me, it seems simply that they’re both environment-based art forms. And they draw similar personalities so naturally there will be overlap.  A good sign-painter uses the environment to draw attention to and compliment the sign or wall they are creating.  A good skater uses the environment around them to their advantage as well.  I skate a lot less now that my hands are the only things supporting me enough to stay away from pushing a shopping cart down skid row.

Skateboard decorated by Ken

Skateboard decorated by Ken (image courtesy of Oakland Sweetheart)

–       You’ve been called a Luddite, and you don’t seem too keen on technology. On the other hand, you have a blog and an Instagram page. Where do you draw the line with computer use?

To use the 20th century term I’m a fence-walker plain and simple.  It’s a case by case for me. But bottom line is I have a business and I’m not doing any prospective or current clients any services by hiding from them in this age.  I use technology as a tool like an electropounce over a pounce wheel. I’m very cautious with how much I use it.  I will rarely use image searches for reference material unless a client brings it up.  I have a few professor friends that will fail their students projects if they can search the subject and find exactly where they Googled it.  I love that!  I’m a book hoarder and a romantic over old world craftsmanship and would never want to live in a world where tangible books aren’t regarded highly.

Sign by Ken Davis

Sign by Ken Davis (Image courtesy of Empire Seven Studios)

I blame my Father in the best way possible for my outlook on tech. He was a first generation techie.  He worked with HP from almost the beginning of the company but had no interest in it.  He saw it as a smart paycheck that would enable him to support a wife and a child as well as all of his creative hobbies.  We didn’t have any form of computer in the house until the school gave me grief at 16 for still submitting typewritten papers and handwritten homework.  By that time my brain had already developed the grooves to live fine without it.  I wouldn’t trade that upbringing for the world.  Though I’m technologically feral, I feel more present in my day to day and love the idea of always having my hand in the beginning and end of a project.  Like Prince.  I like Prince a lot.  You will never see me using a program to design a sign I’m working on.  That is a guarantee.  For me, the act of drawing out the skeleton of the layout, sketching in placeholders for the letters, and finalizing the pattern is a very important process.  The checks and balances that occur in the process of that really exercise your critical thinking and I think end up with a stronger product of your toil.  I can say that I learn something new each time I make a pattern or a sketch.  The extra time it takes is worth it to me.  By drawing it out first, you really gather your head on how to approach painting it in my opinion.

Monogram Sketch

Pencil Sketch for a monogram-style logo, by Ken

–       Many of your signs are simply pieces of art, rather than functional signs. How much of your work is commissioned, versus self-initiated ‘artwork’?

Though I am flattered when people refer to what I do as “pieces of art”, I have serious conflicts agreeing with that idea.  Like I have said in earlier interviews, I am a firm believer of learning the traditions that everyone else before you took the time to execute before you go taking the world by storm; if nothing else out of respect for all those that came before you that did flawless work without any acclaim.  Though I do run off on my own take on lettering and design, it comes from a very solid foundation that Josh Luke, Damon Styer, Larry White, and several Letterheads have been kind enough to teach me.

Go To Helvetica sign

One of Ken’s non-commissioned signs

If I look at my calendar over the next few months and think back over the past 6 years I’d say the amount of commission work I do has jumped from 60 to 90 percent.  At this point I have a daunting backlog of personal projects to get to.  Commissioned work is priority number one.  Anyone that believes in what I do enough to pay me my pound price for it deserves the best that I can do.  I am by no means  a tourist in this craft and it humbles me that so many people several of whom I really look up to commission me for work.  There are very few openings in my month to work on self initiated works now and that’s fine.  I’d rather put something out there that has immediate use for someone that appreciates it.

A Commissioned Sign

A Commissioned Sign

–       Can you tell us how the video ‘It’s Alive!’ came into being?

In a short synopsis, my friend in San Jose runs a gallery called Empire Seven Studios and met with a gold leaf distributor about collaborating to do a promotional video on a craft that not many people are aware exists anymore.  He called me and I was on board so long as I didn’t have to go out of pocket for any supplies.  And so it began.  It was a seriously hearty amount of work.  He only had the filmer for two days so that five-foot by eight-foot gold leaf glass sign which normally would take four full days to complete had to be camera ready in the cameraman’s schedule.  I think one day was sixteen hours and the other was eighteen, maybe more.  I learned a lot from that and got a nice confidence bump that I could gild a sign that large in a serious time crunch.  That window took an entire pack of gold to do (twenty books) and a full quarter pint of back-up paint.  People still refer to that video which makes me happy since it was a lot of fun to make.

–       Your first appearance on our blog was as a disembodied hand, wearing a ‘PVS’ ring. Have you had a lot to do with the Pre-Vinylite Society?

By lineage I do.  I remember walking to food on a lunch-break with Josh and having a conversation about how we all need to create a forum to corral all these new and old painters together so we can all share what we do and as a whole further the education and potential of our craft.

Josh and Meredith run the show on that.  I contribute on occasion but as outlined above I’m not a sorcerer with computer communication and online sharing.  It hinders my ability to be a part of the online enthusiasm but I’m always open and willing to share with another PLU (people like us). All it takes is a call, letter in the mail, or email.  And for the record I hide a PVS in every major sign I do.

Sign Detail

Detail shot from Ken’s Empire Seven Studios Project.

–       Where do you think the sign industry is heading?

I had a good conversation with Meredith yesterday that touched on that.  While there’s a lot of enthusiasm for hand-painted work in the design community right now there’s a few glitches in it.  Not every design that comes out of a graphic designers portfolio will look as good hand-painted.  Though I’m not afraid of money falling in my pocket, as a professional it is important that I give a client exactly what they need.  Sometimes that means saying “I can’t do that”  “Perhaps a silkscreen” or “That design doesn’t lend itself well to a brush.  If I retool it a little it will read better as a hand-painted sign and likely cost less”. We sign-painters need to keep educating clients on what we do as opposed to complaining about a design we have to paint.  If we all communicate our capabilities more we will all be creating stronger work.

I also see a small faction of sign artists which I likely fall into as well.  Painters that people go to because a client wants their unique take on a custom sign.  I can definitely see that growing as a market.

Funny Sign by Ken Davis

Ken Davis & David A. Smith

Ken Davis with the legendary British gilder, David A. Smith

A Visit from Glenn Case

Superwetpaint Van

Glen & I hold up his hand-painted vehicle magnets

On Monday afternoon, we were visited by Glenn Case, also known as ‘Superwetpaint‘. Glenn is a muralist and sign-painter who grew up in North Carolina, learned the craft in Seattle, and now lives with his wife in Brunswick Heads. He was ‘on his way’ to Sydney to paint a sign for a Jamaican restaurant. We had an enjoyable afternoon of carving, lettering, and discussing the finer points of hand-crafted sign artistry.

Hand-Lettering

The author tries out Glen’s brush and mahlstick.

Here’s a little more of Glenn’s work:

Painting a Surfboard

Hand-Lettered Surfboard

A Distressed Wooden Sign

If you happen to be in need of a hand-painted mural, or some lettering on your surfboard, Glenn is your man!