Hand Made

I was in 10th grade when I first started to make hand-lettered signs. Professionally that is; before that I had been your go-to guy for all types of posters and blackboard art in school. But it was in high school that my career, as it was at the time, really took off.

My journalism teacher at that time and her husband helped out at the local Little League baseball field. He may have been a coach though I don’t really recall much other than boxes of sporting equipment in their garage and station wagon. My job however, was hand lettering the many advertising signs that were mounted to the fence surrounding the playing field. 4ft x 8ft plywood signs, mostly painted white, hand lettered with your business name, perhaps a logo, and a phone number and an address. Occasionally we would put two businesses on one board and the text got a bit smaller, but overall it wasn’t a difficult job making four inch letters look legible from the outfield.

That skill helped me quite a bit when I took a job after college in San Diego. Working at Robert Keith Giant Inflatables, I was part of a team of artists who hand painted logos on twenty foot tall vinyl beer bottles and cans. (I wrote about that previously here.)

However most of my graphics career was spent in the screenprinting industry. The billboard posters I printed had a handshake relationship with old-school lettering in that the projected image of text was drawn by hand and then a stencil was cut by hand using an exacto blade. Those paper stencils were used to produce hundreds of identical prints, whether they were yard signs for elections or 30 ft billboards for casinos in my hometown of Reno. The screenprint produced a much cleaner, sharper image of text than my admittedly shaky brushwork ever could. 

All of which brings me to our recent visit to Tennessee and the opportunity to enjoy two vastly different exhibit experiences which showcased basically the same material. 

The Museum of Appalachia twenty miles north of Knoxville in Norris, TN is a wonderful collection of relocated early American frontier buildings, from one-room log cabins to sheds and barns filled with memorabilia. Several larger new structures are jam-packed with an overwhelming assortment of photographs, personal items, home goods and cottage industry crafts, guitars, banjos, dulcimers and small exhibits devoted to favorite sons such as SGT Alvin C. York (WW1). 

Much of the collection appears to be pre-industrial revolution items or shortly thereafter. But what captured my attention wasn’t the time period or the quality of craftsmanship displayed: it was the sheer quantity of materials they had on display! And nearly everything came with a simple hand-lettered caption label. So much stuff! All labeled! Beautiful, shaky, fading-to-grey black ink on sepia colored cardboard labels. Admittedly they were hard to read, but they looked like letters or postcards from a forgotten era.

The next day we toured the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend TN. A beautiful structure with engaging exhibits, the Center appears to be well funded. The exhibit casework is new and reflects our current design trend of color-coordinated thematic divisions. Essentially a book-on-the-wall exhibit experience, it is clean minimalist design. All the body text and object labels are printed (likely off a digital printer, those having superceded screenprinting technology) and there is a curated sense of purposeful arrangement to the items on display. The overall sense here is one of Story, what do these objects tell us about the past and the people who lived here.

The two locations are only 50 miles apart. They couldn’t be farther apart in their differing approaches to presenting and helping us to understand the past and how we are related to it. For all the years I spent in the museum exhibit design and production industry, I have a built in bias towards the clean uncluttered presentation style of the Great Smokies Visitor Center. 

But I have to say, those hand-lettered display signs and labels on all that stuff at the Museum of Appalachia really have me reminiscing. And who doesn’t like the thrill of discovering something tucked away, much like going through an old trunk or your Grandmother’s photo album, only to find pictures of…you?