Today we catch up with sign-painter & VW bus collector, Gibbs Connors. From an industrial former garage in Philadelphia, Gibbs travels the country like a modern-day traveling-sign-man, putting paint on walls and gold on windows.
I got into sign painting in 1986. I had finished college and was working as a laborer for a high school buddie’s construction company. We were finishing a project when I saw this ‘old guy’, who, when I do the math was about the same age as I am now. I can remember watching him work, he had laid down the black outlines first and was stippling in the colours on the letters so they looked like the stained glass lamps that the store sold. I stood there and watched almost in disbelief and certainly amazement at how the paint flowed off the brush and how clean and straight the outline work was. I wanted to talk to him, I know he knew I was there but I didn’t want to bother him. We spoke briefly, he handed me his card. ‘JOHN DALY SIGN PAINTER’. I went by his shop, showed him my portfolio from art school. He patiently watched me flip through the work I had done and said, ‘I don’t know anything about art but if you can draw and paint like that, you can paint signs…frankly I think you’d be selling yourself short but you could do it’. I asked him how to go about getting work. His response was, ‘It couldn’t be easier…just walk down the street and look for businesses that are opening…or someone who needs a new sign….or someone who you think could be use a better sign”. My response was “Yeah? Then what?’. He told me to give them a price, get a deposit and go over to Paragon Paint, buy a brush and a couple of cans of paint “and you’re in business”. So I did. Not much time later I was in the window of a storefront painting ‘CHINA PAGODA’ on the glass, just like I saw the old guy doing!
Last year was an incredible year as far as projects. I was working in Los Angeles at LAX painting a mural for Starbucks. I was working in Chicago for a long time client ‘La Colombe‘ gilding a window, I was working in Washington, DC doing a bunch of gold work, lettering and striping for a fancy restaurant ‘Le Diplomate‘…one of my favourite and probably one of my best projects to date was for ‘Kermit’s Bake Shoppe‘ right here in Philadelphia about ten blocks from my shop. The project is a wall painting project (hard to call it a mural) but it’s designed to look like a vintage wall paper pattern. Aside from the logo in the middle of it, it’s my layout, color selections and design. It measures about twenty-five feet high by fifty feet long and was painted in two days by me and my assistant, Bill Sanders. I made two patterns and planned it out on the wall so those two patterns are stacked alternately and repeat like a true wall paper pattern. It gives the design structure and your eye connects the repeats almost subconsciously to make the eye flow through and explore the pattern.
At the moment, I have a wall lined up for ‘La Colombe’ as well as some gold work. I have a wall lined up for a plumber who saw the Kermit’s job. There are a couple brew pubs that want ‘ghost signs’ painted on their facades. I’m also doing the graphics for a Cezanne show at The Barnes Foundation here in Philadelphia.
The work seems to go in phases and I’ll do almost anything if I think I can do it successfully. Being a ‘sign-painter’ involves a whole lot more that lettering enamel. One of my old sign painting books by Heberling even shows you how to tie knots! Lately I’ve been really focusing on upping my game in the world of gilding. It’s something I have always done. Right out of the gate on that ‘China Pagoda’ job I wanted to gild. I learned eventually by making myself a gold leaf sample box showing a bunch of different types of techniques, mirror, matte, two tone, mirror with a damar center and so on. Now I’m doing chipping, gold blending, trying different carats, more typefaces. I’ve done about thirty of them in the past few weeks. This is after having the opportunity to take a glass sign workshop with Roderick Treece in Encinitas, California back in February of this year. That really unleashed this monster in me that I can’t, and don’t try to contain.
When I moved to Philadelphia in 1989 there were a few guys around still painting signs. Occasionally over the years I’d see signs that local art student had done. They were good but I could tell that they weren’t done by a sign painter. How? The lettering was the worst part and they lacked layout. Or maybe I’d see one that was done by a graphic designer. Maybe the designer painted the sign for some extra money at the end of the project. The sign would be a decent design but the brushwork and paint application was lacking. Now here in Philadelphia there are some young-timers coming up that are very talented. I was driving around one day and saw this great hand painted sign and thought ‘Who did that!?’ Then I saw a gold job one day. I could tell it wasn’t by the other person in Philly that does gold… hmmm, what’s going on here!?. I knew something was up. I was getting a lot of calls for people wanting apprenticeships, so I started getting the people together at my shop for sign painter solidarity meetings, kind of like a guild or trade group. We’d talk some technique but more-so solidarity among ourselves. Namely ‘the code’ that the old-timers that I know would talk about. It happens to all of us from time to time where you really need the work. Situations arise. I like to think long term and never ‘mow another guys lawn’ over a project. If someone calls me on a job and I know one of the other guys work for them, I’ll call the other sign painter and let them know so they don’t think I’m poaching their clients. That’s important because that stuff can get ugly.
There are a lot of fresh faces out there doing incredible work. Work like I’ve never seen before. I think certainly the New Bohemia crew and the folks that came up through Damon Styer’s tutelage are second to none. I had the opportunity to stop by LA Trade Tech this past February to do a little guest lecture spot. The Young folks there are absolutely killing it. On an earlier trip to California I met Derek Mcdonald. Derek is incredibly talented. He’s the true definition of a sign painter plus, like me he’s self taught. I met a whole bunch of guys at a ‘Conclave‘ in February, Holy Smokes! Gregg Heger, Sean Glaspy, “Coolhand Ken” Davis, certainly Colt Bowden is a tremendous contributor to the efforts with ‘How to Paint Signs and Influence People‘ , Steve Vigeant‘s work really impressed me, Roderick Treece is absolutely incredible, Sean Starr has an amazing understanding of what’s happening and has been in it forever, James Thomas is a young-timer that’s made tremendous strides. Let’s not forget Dave Smith, Will Lynes and Nathan Pickering…I could go on and on.
Locally in Philadelphia, my old buddy Harry Lowe has been painting signs since he was about 10 years old. He is ‘a natural’ the likes I have never seen. With me the tradition continues, from the guy that got me into sign painting, John Daly, to those that came before him and who he learned from, John Snyder, to the people coming up that I can pass it on to, Bill Sanders, Chriss Russo, Christian Cantiello, Darin Rowland, Jaime Cartagena… these are folks that have only been painting signs a couple years and are coming at it with ‘the fire’.
You collect VW buses. How did that start?
I can’t say exactly how or why but it is the obsession of obsessions. The Japanese use the word ‘Hotaku’ to describe this. There is no end to it. I heard this interview with Bob Dylan one time. He was asked about what the song ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ was about. He said he couldn’t begin to explain. He did say that a book could be written about each line in the song, for instance ‘What have you done my blue eyed son?’ Well that’s about John F. Kennedy and many books have been written about him. It’s the same way with me and Volkswagen buses. If I see a part I hadn’t noticed before or an accessory I don’t own, it opens the door on a new chapter of collecting. I’m a freak about roof racks. Nearly every bus I own has one on it. There are more hanging on the walls. I’d buy more buses to put those roof racks on, but I don’t have the room for more. Then I decide from time to time that it’s ridiculous to have all these buses. I decide to unload some… but which ones? They all have their story and fit in my collection. This is nearly thirty years of collecting. So now I am facing all theses quandaries I’ve created for myself. What happens? I end up buying another! Mental! I guess it started when I was a kid, before I can remember really but I had a yellow beetle Tonka toy that was my favorite toy. When it was time to drive, even though I was long since done playing with that Tonka toy, I had to have a yellow VW Beetle as my first car. In fact, my second car was a yellow VW Beetle too. Somewhere along the way the buses came into my life. Then more buses, then different models of buses. My first was a “single cab”, after that I think I got a twenty-one-window, then a twenty-three-window, then who knows. I bet I’ve owned seventy or so buses by now, I usually have ten to fifteen at any one time as well as Porsche or two, a couple Beetles, a Syncro DOKA and some daily driver late model cars.
Have you noticed a growing interest in handcrafted signs, in recent times?
Yes, definitely! I’m not sure why the growing interest is there but it’s certainly a great time to be a sign-painter. I’m going to guess and say that ‘The Sign Painters Movie‘ had a fair amount to do with that, though most people I’ve talked to outside the trade haven’t heard of it. I’ve heard people call sign painting ‘a lost art’. I call it ‘a living history trade’. The way sign painters do things now is much the same way it was done one-hundred years ago except most of us have a computer that we use one way or another. Speaking of the computer, I think of and use the computer as a tool, just like any other tool in my shop. It has a purpose. The main purpose I use it for is making paper patterns. I’ll scale up a design on the computer, whether it’s a client’s logo or something I’ve drawn by hand and scanned in. The plotter draws out the pattern with a pen, then I’ll perforate it with the electro-pounce. Occasionally I’ll cut vinyl letters for body copy in some of the exhibit work I do in museums. I still prefer and always recommend that we vertical screen print in museum spaces. Vinyl letters on walls can’t come close to the quality of the vertical screen printing. I’ve always said that sign painting has been under-appreciated, overly scrutinized and often disregarded. It’s lived in the shadows of whatever new computers can do, cutting faster, routing, laser, water-jet and digital printing. Computers undeniably do ‘perfect work’. The problem with the ‘perfect work”‘ is that it lacks the character that hand painted work has. The computer also has some very defined limits. It can’t do water-gilding for example. Now the clients are starting to get it. A restaurant for example will market itself as ‘organic’ and ‘farm to table’. They name the farm that raised the beef they serve, where the mushrooms were grown. Hell, I’ve even seen ‘artisanal marshmallows’ on a menu in a restaurant. Nostalgia is a powerful drug and smart marketers know it. It all looks like a hoax if they hang a vinyl banner across their front window that says ‘LUNCH SPECIAL’. Instead, they want a hand lettered menu board that’s aged to look like it’s been there since 1954 and a hand drawn chalkboard with their lunch specials. I think it’s all about an inverse reaction to technology. You want the new iPhone? Cool! I wanna find Al Imelli’s ‘Alphabet’s and Letters’!