By Ron Wagner
The signs were literally everywhere for Shelby Rodeffer. It took the 2013 documentary film Sign Painters for her to actually see them, however.
“I felt kind of dumb when I watched it, because I realized I had grown up in this very small town where every single sign is hand-painted, and I had never noticed it,” she says. “I didn’t know that was something you could do for a living. I just assumed our town was too poor to afford ‘real’ signs because we didn’t have any digital signs.”
Sign Painters explores the line between art and commerce as it tracks the evolution of the hand-painted sign industry. Rodeffer spent her youth about 30 miles north of Nashville in Greenbrier, Tennessee, where she used to hear about a distant relative named Felix Bellar. Bellar had gained a bit of local celebrity as a sign painter in nearby Adams, Tennessee, and though Rodeffer never met him before he died in 2012, posthumously his life became a revelation to her.
“Until I saw that documentary, the reality of sign painting as a profession had never been known to me. I guess I had always assumed that the business owners themselves were painting their own signs. It was like the movie They Live, when the main character puts on truth glasses and he can see the hidden message behind everything. I suddenly saw not only signs, but a distinctive difference between signs done by different people, and especially the distinct style that Felix had. I didn’t know we were related, but I did know that one guy was doing all of the painting in Springfield, Greenbrier, and Adams. He had literally painted the entire county, and I could track influences, developments, and color preferences in his work. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that was an artist, and this could be my life!’”
At the time, Rodeffer was working in a small marketing firm in west Nashville, using her degree in graphic design with a focus on illustration that she’d earned from Watkins in 2011. She of course knew it would take much more than a couple of jars of paint and some brushes to make sign painting her life, but armed with a direction and passion Rodeffer wasted little time making her dream a reality.
She painted a handful of storefronts in Nashville before moving to Chicago, where she and her partner Julian Baker launched their own sign company, Finer Signs, in 2015. Rodeffer quickly made a name for herself with her skillful use of fonts and bold colors, landing gigs that included live-painting the announcement for the 2017 Pitchfork Music Festival. She also worked her way onto the frontlines of a sea change in how a society rebelling against the proliferation of sterile computer-designed, die-cut signage sees and values the work she does.
“You have sign painters who do not recognize sign painting as something that is artful or artistic. It is merely a means to work, and they take pride in doing a good job and having a good style, but they are not artists and they don’t think I’m an artist, or maybe they think I’m an artist that is dabbling in sign painting,” Rodeffer says. “I feel people my age or people who are coming from the same place I did—an informed-lettering background working in design and letterpress—we’re seeing it as something with a lot of style that leaves an imprint on the landscape of your community.”
Striking the balance between, and appreciating, both the commercial and artistic aspects of sign painting has been challenging—and rewarding.
“Anything that is on the Finer Signs website is somebody [often] saying, ‘I want it to be this color,’ and I’m like, ‘You got it.’ … Which is fine. I’m a brush for hire,” she says. “But with my personal artwork, that’s me flexing the stuff that I want to do more.”
Rodeffer has also worked to help other sign painters flex their stuff, most notably by teaming with Meredith Kasabian, co-founder of the Pre-Vinylite Society, to put together the first show of women sign painters. The Pre-Vinylite Society is a network of sign painting enthusiasts, and as co-curators of 2017’s The Pre-Vinylette Society: An International Showcase of Women Sign Painters at the Chicago Art Department they struck a blow for the artistic legitimacy of more than 60 female sign painters from nine countries who displayed their work.
“We really struggled to find a gallery that would put signs in their gallery. I don’t know, I guess they had a hard time envisioning it,” Rodeffer says. “But the show went off really well, and now we have more shows planned.”
How well and intentionally Rodeffer has marketed herself has also marked a generational divide. Her online presence, which includes two Instagram accounts and is highlighted by a crisp and professional personal website, has been crucial to her success, she says, but also seen as a bit radical by sign painting traditionalists.
“I’ve been speaking to a lot of older sign painters, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you put your work online. That’s so dangerous. You might get a permit violation or some union guy’s going to come and shake you off a ladder,’ because that’s the world they grew up in,” she says. “When I set out to (be a sign painter), I did not have a ton of people knocking on my door or emailing me, so I had a lot of free time and decided I was going to custom-build this website and make a lot of studio work. I had the time to make a nice portfolio.”
That’s just some of the advice Rodeffer gave to Watkins students when she returned to campus in the spring, at the request of the graphic design program, to speak and work with them on a mural.
“The biggest advantage and boost Watkins was able to give to my life and my artistic development is the community that it fosters. Both staff and alumni have been so supportive of me and my work, and it’s been awesome to see other students from my time at Watkins really come into their own success as well. Watkins was also the place where I met my partner Julian, and he was and continues to be the single greatest influence and support in my work.”
Rodeffer was also happy to get the chance to atone for past sins.
“I made this Sharpie mural in one of the computer labs when I went to school there, and I never finished it. It looked so bad and it stayed up forever, so it felt good to come back and do a proper mural that was not just vandalism at the school,” she says with a laugh. “It was the full-circle moment.”