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A self-Proclaimed “blue-Collar graphic Designer” attempts to save the art of hand-painted signs, one brushstroke at a time
 

By A. N. Devers / Photos by Moya McAllister
 

Gibbs Connors is a commercial sign-maker—or, as he calls himself, “a blue-collar graphic designer.” Responsible for the fine hand-painted lettering and freestyle designs on many storefronts in Philadelphia, where he resides, as well as on facades far beyond, Connors is an independent spirit who eschews digital aid as much as possible to keep the dying art of sign-making alive, one brushstroke at a time.

In his 30 years in the trade, Connors has hand-painted two-tone 23-karat gold-leaf script for the La Colombe coffee cafes, among many other businesses; and hand-detailed and painted racing numbers on a vintage car that then won a car show. He’s also designed and mounted exhibition graphics for fine art museums and institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where this year he handled the text and wall treatments for the Van Gogh show.

“I love the challenge of having not done something before,” he says. The success of his business is due not only to his talent, but also to a human ability that computers can’t reproduce. Oftentimes the work he gets, he says, is “work that left others shaking their heads and saying ‘it can’t be done.’”

Connors does his screen-printing, hand-lettering, hand-carving and hand-fabrication of large-scale signs and facades with tools known to the trade: fine-haired lettering brushes; a mahl stick (to rest a hand or forearm against to prevent smudging while doing detail work); gilder’s tips and gilding-size brushes for transferring gold leaf to surfaces; cotton wadding; razor-sharp carving tools; and drills and other power tools for fabrication.

Connors, who’s from Troy, New York, has a Fine Arts degree in drawing from the Pratt Institute, the acclaimed art school in Brooklyn. But that’s not where he honed his skills. After graduation, while working on construction sites as a laborer in upstate New York, Connors caught the sign-painting bug while watching the handiwork of a sign-maker named John Daly. When Connors showed Daly some of his drawings, Daly gave him advice as both an artisan and a business owner. “He said, ‘If you can draw like that, you should have no problem painting signs,’” recalls Connors. “‘Do good work, be fair with people and, while you may never get wealthy, you will always have work. Now go find a business that looks like they need a new sign.”

Connors’ first sign was for a Chinese restaurant. “I did exactly what John Daly told me to do,” he says. “I walked into a business, introduced myself and told them I thought I could make them a nicer sign. They gave me a deposit, I went and bought a couple of lettering brushes and a couple half pints of lettering enamel, and I returned to paint the window.” The work was well received and, in the end, he got even more work out of the deal. “Mr. Kwo offered me a job delivering Chinese food for his restaurant on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which I accepted.”

Decades later, Connors is outspoken about his dedication to the handmade. “Anyone with a credit card can go buy a computer plotter or digital printer,” he says. “Someone who makes signs by hand has an intuitive understanding of how to do a project before they pick up a brush or a carving knife.” (Connors does use a computer from time to time, but he says he sees it as a tool “just like any other tool,” not as the means to an end.)

His work is in such demand that Connors doesn’t have much spare time, but he fills the little he does have hiking and camping with his wife and children, and continuing to work with his hands—fixing up old cars and other vintage vehicles, many of which share his 8,000 square-foot warehouse turned sign-maker’s shop.

When it comes to his craft, Connors is proud to work among other dedicated sign-makers, keeping the traditional art alive. “We all do something different; we all have our own client base,” he says. “The real challenge is educating the customers that, yes, people are still making things by hand.”

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A. N. Devers has written for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Slate, Departures, Time Out and The Rumpus, among other publications. She is the founder and editor of www.writershouses.com, a website that provides a searchable index of writers’ houses around the world.