Big Real Big

I first learned silkscreen printing when I went to work for a sign company printing billboards back in the 1970s. It was a part time job while I attended the University of Nevada. Today billboards come in a lot of varying sizes and the technology has changed dramatically over the past 40 plus years. Many billboards are now printed digitally (think of a gigantic HP plotter), or even comprised of small LED units to create vivid moving graphic displays. But back in the day, we printed on sheets of paper, 42” x 60”, 12 sheets to a sign. The screens were huge compared to the little screens we had used in art class. The squeegees were big. We mixed up the ink up in 5 gallon buckets. Everything was big.

Checking the registration between the screen and the printing substrate.

When I moved to San Diego after college, I found a job in another screen printing company doing the same thing as before. We still used hand cut paper stencils, adhered to the bottom of the screen, to make our impressions. But this company had an industrial-sized copy camera and a dark room, so we produced a lot of signs using film and photosensitive emulsion coated onto the screens for the stencil. 

I left them and helped to start another printing company (a competitor with several former employees from our previous company—not sure how I feel about that now). 

But those positions and experiences all prepared me for the move to the Really Big  Show. Robert Keith and Company, San Diego was a design and fabrication company specializing in custom made Giant Inflatable Product Replicas, along with inflatable college mascots, logos, scenic props, and advertising. Everything we made was BIG.

When they received an order for multiple copies of twenty foot tall Budweiser cans, the decision was made to create an in-house screen printing department which would augment their hand-painted graphic capabilities.

We created twelve foot long screens to print labels directly on the fabric pieces which would then be sewn together to create the product replicas. We printed for Budweiser, Miller Beer, Corona and Dos Equis, San Miguel and Tecate,  Strohs and Pabst beers, and Pepsi. Bottles and cans, even a giant six-pack created as an inflatable building, were some of the many oversized projects I helped to create.

The company changed hands and names a couple of times thru the years. I got back in touch with them several years ago. I was surprised and more than a little impressed to see they are still in business, making things BIG as http://www.biggerthanlife.com

Oh! Side note here. For years one of my unofficial nicknames has been Hon Real Big. I like it! I think I might have preferred “Slim” or “Speedy,” but none of those quite seem to fit now.

Catching Up

One of the most exciting aspects of reconnecting with friends has been to discover what they are doing now. While Facebook has been a great resource to find and reestablish friendships from years ago, I’ve discovered it’s not the only way to do that.

Recently I found an old college roommate (old as in the sense, from years ago!) while searching online for someone else. Google returned a vast array of individuals with the same name as my search; when I cross-referenced a few of them through LinkedIn I was surprised at who I had found. I wrote about reconnecting and catching up with John last week (here). Since then we’ve done a deeper dive and spoken on the phone, he refreshing my fading memory and sketching in more details of his life now.

Another friend from my time in the service, US Army 83-86, moved back to the Pacific Northwest upon retiring from the Army. I follow him on Instagram and was encouraged to see that he and his wife have started a podcast primarily focused on travel and the adventures of a blended family. More power to them! Just as the internet has allowed for a wider audience for writers, it has also opened up the broadcast medium to more voices speaking from their own experiences. Take a listen here https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/lifetrek/id1553717951

Last year I had plans to join my fellow high school graduates to celebrate our 50th Reunion. While those plans were cancelled due to Covid-19, I was able to reconnect with a number of friends thru the Facebook Group one of them had set up for a previous reunion. Catching up online, looking at pictures of children ( and grandchildren!) was itself a small consolation for missing out. And truthfully, we didn’t get fingerprints all over the photo albums that inevitably get passed around. 

Last year I spent some time searching online for information about a Nevada artist, one of whose paintings my parents used to own. When I came across a photo of his painting on a website devoted to Western artists, I was intrigued. It had been used to illustrate an article, a review of a new book comparing the lives of two prominent Nevada artists, one an author, the other a painter. I found the book on Amazon and ordered it; read it; loved it. The book’s author had moved to Reno, my hometown, so I tracked him down and shot off a letter to him. I was agreeably surprised to receive a reply. Anthony noted that he has a new book to be published this spring on another Western artist from the same time period and that he would alert me as to the date. A nice touchstone with an important part of my distant past.

Filing box with old cards
Paper filing card system.

Last year we had a mobile shredding service come out and destroy dozens of boxes of old business records, files and notes on people, some of whom I know have passed on. But what of the rest? What has become of some of these names in files from decades ago? What of their families, their children? Where are they all now? And what about us, have you gotten in touch with someone from your past? No guarantees but it is nice to see how some stories have turned out years later, when perhaps we had only seen the first chapter.

I Missed It

This past Christmas I drove out to our local Target to pick up a new Christmas CD for the wife. No luck. I drove over to Best Buy, home of everything electronic, and was surprised by how much they had…changed. The vast rows of CDs and DVDs—which, along with the equipment to play them, had once been a major part of the store—were gone. Somehow I had missed a major change in the cultural landscape. 

Though I haven’t  been a big consumer of music on CD, still I feel I’ve done my part to keep the music industry running, often picking up a couple of CDs for the holidays or gifts for birthdays. The same for DVDs, purchasing a few every year. When the collectors edition of Star Wars came out on DVD, I picked up a copy along with The Lord of the Rings (and the Hobbit!). I’ve added to my James Bond collection all of the Daniel Craig movies as they came out. The same with Batman and of course The Avengers. Building my audio video library piece by piece through the years, I was surprised by how much we had when it came time to pack and move to our new place two years ago.

Blockbuster sold DVDs as well as rented them.

On March 31, 1997, digital video disc (DVD) video players were first released for sale in the United States. Remember Netflix and their DVDs in a self return mailer? Netflix began in 1997 mailing out DVDs in a self return mailer based on your list of favorites. Within ten years they had switched to a streaming service. Before we switched to Netflix we would stop by our local Blockbuster and grab a few movies for the weekend. Remember Blockbuster? They filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Culture shift. Movies online, no more standing in line.

Best Buy announced that they would be phasing out all CD sales by July 1, 2018. Target was expected to make a similar move, selling CDs only on consignment. The digital disc was destined to be sold in only a few holdouts such as Walmart, smaller record shops, and of course Amazon. I missed this announcement. https://www.digitaltrends.com/features/the-history-of-the-cds-rise-and-fall/

At the same time as the introduction of the CD and DVD, in October 2001 Apple unleashed a little MP3 player known as the iPod. Twenty years later players can be found in many sizes, shapes, and configurations. Best Products lists their top ten players here. With entries from Sony, FiiO, Sandisc, and of course Apple, these little go-anywhere devices offer incredible sound quality, music on demand where and when you want to hear it. They replaced the big boom boxes from my younger days.

Pandora, the internet music streaming service which began in January 2000, has lost ground to an array of new services: Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, SiriusXM, Tidal, and YouTube Music (which replaced Google Play Music) all offer a selection of add-supported or subscription-based music systems that you can stream to your phone, MP3 player, computer or automobile.

So where does that leave us, those folks who are left holding on to boxes full of movies and music CDs from the past couple of decades? What do we do with the remnants of older technology, not quite obsolete but “quaint,” in the same way that my desktop computer was replaced with a smaller, faster laptop? Do we finally adapt and adopt?

Was there a memo? If so, I think I missed it. 

Big Picture

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about outdoor murals and the Big Box Data Centers out here in Loudoun County. You can read that post here. The data centers have been here for years and no doubt more of them are on the way. While the discussion was enlightening, it had me thinking back to other examples of very large scale art projects.

Raphael’s fresco, “The School of Athens” is huge: painted in 1511, it measures 16′ 5″ x 25′ 3”. Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” painted in 1642, is 11′ 11″ x 14′ 4”. And one of my favorite images, Pablo Picasso’s moving “Guernica” is 11′ 6″ x 25′ 6″. Clearly, overly-large works of art are hardly new to us.

Recently a new outdoor mural was installed in Springfield in conjunction with a refresh of a local neighborhood shopping plaza. Undoubtedly intentional, the cardinal in the graphic brings to mind the name of the plaza, Cardinal Forest.

Bank of America mural in Springfield VA, by Refract Studio.

In 1974, as a senior in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Nevada Reno, I had the opportunity to paint one of several billboards around town that spring. The billboard locations had been donated by Donrey for a month to advertise that year’s Spring Arts Festival at UNR. 

Billboard art, UNR Arts Festival

I had been working part time at a local billboard company. Outdoor Posters, (now Midtown Art and Photo) was a silkscreen printer specializing in the large billboards one can see through out many of the cities and towns across the US..

The Billboard Marketing Industry https://www.bmediagroup.com/news/which-state-has-the-most-billboards/ notes that there are now almost 400,000 billboards in America. Four states have no billboards (Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii). The federal government tracks the number of billboards through each state as part of the Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965. 

Florida, Georgia, California, and New Jersey are the top four states with billboards. According to Statista.com, there are approximately 343 thousand displays in the U.S. in 2020 with nearly  9.6 thousand were digital billboards. Considering that digital billboards were introduced in 2005, I would have thought that there would be far more of them by now.

What has happened is the proliferation of digital media in places like cinemas, shopping malls, airports, bus shelters, and of course stadiums. Digital media have virtually popped up everywhere, in all the obvious spaces. But we have also seen a proliferation of large-scale digital images in many unlikely places.

Video screen at Christian Fellowship Church, Ashburn VA

Churches, for instance, have really embraced the large format LED video walls. With their brilliant saturated colors and use of text, the modern video walls in today’s churches seemingly replicate the function of gothic stained glass windows, both as decorative elements and as tools of instruction. In the best cases, their use can enhance the mood and lyrics of a song or a speaker’s message. In the worst case, they can become expensive screen savers and a distraction to the message.

One of my favorite movies begins with a scene that was prescient for it’s time. Ridley Scott’s classic film, “Blade Runner” opens with a view of building-sized video screens. Startling at the time, they are now commonplace in many cities, for instance New York’s Times Square. And home TVs and video screens? Always bigger because, well, we just love the Big Picture.

Blade Runner, 1982


Go Big

Driving out to the Ashburn Home Depot along Loudoun County Parkway, I was struck recently by the sheer size of all the data centers going in. I did some online searching and was surprised to learn that our area now is home to 70 data centers with more planned for the future. When I lived here during the 1990s the area was still very rural. AOL was expanding their footprint but for the most part, turf farms seemed to be the major development. All that has changed now and there are homes and retail establishments from Ashburn to Brambleton, from Route 28 on up to Belmont Ridge Road. 

With more than 70% of the world’s internet traffic passing through our area, it isn’t a surprise to expect even more development in the coming years. Trying to find a careful balance between residential growth and commercial development has been a difficult challenge. The data centers have brought much needed employment opportunities to our local economy, and added to county revenues.

Data Center Frontier’s Rich Miller reports that the ongoing rush to build more data centers has resulted in the county receiving “fast-track applications” for seven new data center projects that will result in 3 million square feet of new data center space in the region. In addition, last month Data Center Dynamics reported that Amazon is planning construction of a new 1.75 million square foot data center facility in the area as well.

My concern isn’t so much in the number of data centers that we host as it is in the visual effect they have on our community. Our wide roads are beautifully landscaped and well maintained. Yet, the enormous size of the newer developments seems to be softened only with the addition of low berms, landscaping and small trees. Perhaps in 20 years all that landscaping will have grown into effective visual barriers. Right now, not so much.

In an article from the December 26, 2019 Loudountimes.com newspaper, Nathaniel Cline wrote that “In the coming year, Loudoun County’s Department of Economic Development will conduct a branding review of the data center cluster in Loudoun and explore potential branding and signage campaigns as directed by the county’s Board of Supervisors on Dec. 17.”

He also added that “Included in the Board of Supervisors’ direction is for county staff to consider a roadside sign or monument to support the branding efforts. Areas for signage could include major thoroughfares such as Route 28, Route 7, Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway.” 

So my question is more in the range of a suggestion and an example.

My home town of Reno, Nevada has continued a years-long effort to “rebrand” the city from that of a gambling and tourism-only focus to one that has greater appeal  to residents and visitors alike. One of the steps they have taken is to make the city more “art friendly,” specifically public art friendly, by encouraging (and in some cases helping finance) public sculptures and large scale murals. Reno is a city that had one mural when I was growing up there (“Harolds Club or Bust!”) and now boasts more than 100 murals, with tours available! https://travelnevada.com/arts-culture/through-the-lens-midtown-mural-tour/

When I reached out to Reno City Government recently, Megan Berner the Acting Manager of Arts, Culture, and Events, City of Reno emailed me back. She said that much of the growth and interest in public art came after the establishment of a Public Arts Commission in 1990.

Quoting Megan “The mural movement itself in Reno was very organic and mostly driven by individual artists (like Erik Burke) and private business owners–most of our murals are on private property. The murals on private property are privately funded for the most part. The City helped fund the large mural behind the red flower in the image you attached–it is on a public building owned by the County. 

We also have fairly relaxed rules about painting murals on private property. The only real guidelines/rules we have is that murals cannot be signs/advertisements for the business. They need to be art or comply with our signs laws.”

I contacted Loudoun County Supervisor Mike Turner with the question: what can we do to encourage the owners of these big box, concrete buildings to consider enriching their buildings and our community with outdoor art? His gracious response was welcoming.

The concept Reno developed of turning that vast wall space into art is fantastic. It sounds like Buddy Rizer, the Director of Economic Development, is already looking at that as a possible improvement. Clearly that whole section of Ashburn has been aesthetically impacted by these massive buildings, and I should warn you that, as horizontal real estate has begun to reach its practical limit, the data centers are starting to talk about vertical development. They own the land, so there’s not much we can do about that.

Supervisor Turner concluded, “The challenge we face is that Ashburn, VA is now exactly like the oil boom towns of the late 19thcentury, except Ashburn is a global boom town. “Data Center Alley” in Ashburn is literally the iconic center of the data world. They are extraordinarily good community partners supporting many local nonprofits and educational programs, and they represent an enormous slice of county tax revenue. That plays a major role in enabling us to keep property taxes in line. I’m also working with them to move them onto sustainable energy sources for the great amounts of power they use. I promise you we are aware of the issue and are looking at any way to mitigate the visual impact they are having.

We have a challenge in front of us; I don’t expect that suddenly we will see sculptures and murals and other forms of public art appearing around every corner. I do hope, however, that as we continue to build out our environment with massive concrete boxes, we might give more than a nod to how the region is going to look in five or ten years. Will we continue to be Data Center Alley, or can we hope for something along the lines of a High Tech Gateway enriched by artwork of a scale to capture our imaginations and the explosive power of the internet? Let’s hope so.


Zoom Hacks

By now, I think we all know what is working for us on Zoom. Or at least we know what hasn’t worked for us. I opened a Zoom account March 18 to lead our Wednesday night small group Bible study as an online discussion group. What I thought would last for a few weeks, at the most a month or two, has continued on thru October with no plans for stopping any time in the immediate future.

At first we used our iPad propped up on a few books on a table as our only device to log in and connect with friends. That worked fine until I knocked it over a few times reaching for my coffee. So that has lead us to a continual improvement mode and our own list of Zoom Hacks.

  1. Tripod: We bought a Joby iPad holder to attach the iPad to my camera tripod. Now we were always in the frame without looking for a stack of books to prop up the iPad.
  2. Lighting: The lighting in our living room is nice, but not what you would consider studio quality. Quite often we were silhouettes against the lighter background, or you couldn’t see us at all. I found an inexpensive LED studio umbrella light on Amazon that has worked great. It’s lightweight and is easily stored when not in use.
  3. Webcam and Microphone: the iPad worked great for a time but when we hosted a meeting for friends IRL and online, we needed a better solution than the iPad’s built in camera and microphone. A recommendation from a friend out in Oregon (who also demonstrated his for me) lead to purchasing a webcam with two microphones suitable for picking up the voices from people spread out in a classroom.
  4. External Speaker: the tinny sound from our Mac book wasn’t adequate for the folks in our classroom to hear the comments from our online participants. So we bought a portable Bluetooth speaker. Great sound, small investment.
  5. Lazy Susan Turntable: With a large group sitting six feet apart, it was impossible for the camera to pick up everyone. So we placed the web cam on a small tripod and set it on a turntable in the middle of the table. Now we just spin it around towards whoever is speaking. Problem solved.


If this keeps up for much longer, I’m sure we will come up with a few more improvements to our portable home Zoom Kit. The biggest improvement has been the best hack of all. 

It only took one Zoom meting for us to realize that I am terrible at multitasking. I would forget to admit people who were in the meeting room, or forget to read the comments in the chat room while we were meeting. So from that first meeting, my wife has graciously served as our online host while I lead the discussion. She monitors the online participants, replies to messages in the chat room, and operates our swivel camera/microphone setup ensuring that the online participants can at least see who is speaking and not getting a view of the ceiling or the back wall of the classroom. AND participates in the discussion, proving to be a great multitasker!

We have accepted the idea that some routines just won’t be going back to the old normal. And that’s OK. In the past, if you couldn’t be physically present for a meeting, a study or group discussion, Too Bad. Your Loss. Now we are seeing even greater participation, often from members who are on travel, logging in to take part and offer their voice to the discussion. Modern technology has offered more, affordable ways to stay in touch than ever before. Whether a cellphone or a laptop, and iPad or a desktop computer, it’s easy to stay connected and not miss out. Not quite like being in the room, but close.


Here is a list of the products we found helpful; you can find them all on Amazon.

  • DOSS SoundBox Touch Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speakers
  • Victure Webcam with Dual Microphones, 1080P Full HD Streaming Webcam for PC, MAC, Desktop & Laptop
  • JOBY GripTight PRO Mount for Tablets
  • ESDDI Softbox Lighting Kit Photo Studio Light