GILLETTE, Wyo. — A liberal amount of gray is flecked in the beard and hair of Norman Randall, 54.
It’s not from the paint the Cheyenne man is applying to signs at the AVA Community Art Center in Gillette, though.
It may be more about his age and his business: Hand-painting signs.
He bills himself as the Old School Sign Painter.
In the 1980s, the advent of vinyl signs spelled the doom of the art of sign painting throughout the United States.
Now, though, the practice is coming back, and that brought Randall back to Gillette in September.
He wants to teach a workshop on sign painting in Gillette in the future, if others want to learn the art.
THE ART OF SIGNS
And it is an art, one Randall started at age 8 or 9 in the late 1960s when he helped his brother paint a sign for a Dairy Queen in Dry Prong, Louisiana.
That was his first job, one that included misspelling the word “dining” and instead painting “dinning.”
His mother noticed the error and the family offered to repaint the sign.
The business owner didn’t want that, however. He told Randall that he wouldn’t believe the number of people who came to the Dairy Queen to tell him about the misspelled word and also bought something to eat or drink while they were there.
Since then, Randall went on to paint signs in Louisiana and Texas before closing his shop in 1983 when vinyl signs took over the industry.
“Everybody was competing for a $10 job. Lately, though, there’s been a resurgence,” Randall said.
BACK IN BUSINESS
So he moved to Cheyenne a few years ago and decided to open a new shop. Now his mantra is have paint, will travel.
“You’ve got to be a gypsy,” Randall said.
That’s not such a bad thing. It brought him and his love of sign painting to Gillette, where he applied blue letters and black dots to a white background on a former garage door on the side of the former Wyoming Department of Transportation building that now is a center for art in the community.
He was brought to the community by artist Dara Corkery, who was looking for a new sign at AVA and wanted it done old style instead of on vinyl.
To demonstrate what he does and promote the sign-painting workshops, Corkery and Randall combined for a movie and popcorn day at AVA on Sunday afternoon. Folks also watched Randall paint, something that drew sign painters in a passing pickup to give him a few whistles and thumbs-up.
An AVA supporter donated the money for the signs and to bring Randall to Gillette. The signs face West Second Street in front of the building.
“I believe a computer will never replace a human,” he said. “I’m not an artist. I couldn’t paint a picture of that tree.”
But he knows how to use negative space to make the words pop out at those driving by in a rush.
And he knows a sign painter is, by nature, a counselor and educator who leaves his mark on the world with each sign he paints.
That’s why people collect them.
“Old painted signs are collectors’ items now,” Randall said. “Like me, they get better looking with age.”
MEANT TO BE
Corkery had seen some hand-painted signs in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and wanted to bring that art to Gillette. She also felt the AVA Community Art Center needed a new sign.
Executive Director Sarah Warne agreed. She even had a location for the sign, although a horse stood in the way — one of those painted for a fundraiser in years past through AVA.
Then a woman who originally had wanted to buy that painted horse — who couldn’t afford it at the time — made another offer. Now the horse is gone and the location for a new sign became available.
It was a sign that Randall’s work was meant to be.
VALUABLE REAL ESTATE
He began by designing the signs in his shop in Cheyenne, then using a seamstress tool to outline the lettering, creating small dots. He chalked the letters onto the space of the sign — using math to make sure the lines were straight — and then began painting.
The paint is specially made to withstand the elements, weather and aging.
He’ll teach all of that to anyone who’d like to learn the trade.
“I hope to teach an old-school workshop,” Randall said. “I’ll teach them what I know.”
That’s something he’s never done, although he said there are lettering workshops offered throughout England and Scotland, where hand-painted signs are back in vogue.
“A sign is valuable real estate,” he added, relating the tale of how a sign painter advised a businessman to cut the words he didn’t need in a “Fresh Fish Sold Here” sign to just “Fish.” Obviously, he said, the fish had to be fresh or no one would sell it, and just as obvious was where it was sold. The word “sold” also wasn’t needed because the businessman wasn’t a philanthropist.
No matter how you describe it, this is a profession for the ages.
“I’ve always enjoyed it,” Randall said. “I get to play with paint.”
Thousands of signs later, Randall is still doing what he loves.
His hand-lettered signs are still on display in Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Cheyenne, Gordon County, Colorado, California and now Gillette.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com