The painted wooden sign has a long history in New England, and is no less effective today for our beloved shopkeeps.
The painted wooden sign was one of New England’s earliest art forms, starting back when colonial innkeepers lured customers with bold hand-lettering and eye-catching imagery such as bulls, lions, and goblets.
Portland, Maine artist Will Sears has a thing for wooden signs. His company Better Letter Hand Painted Signs makes signs for restaurants, shops, farms, and other small businesses that evoke the look of commerce in the early 20th century. But when it comes to Sears’ art, the medium is the message.
“My fine art is very closely tied to sign painting,” he says. Recent works involve sawing his own hand-painted, pre-weathered wooden signs into pieces, then re-assembling them to create really cool Americana-inspired abstract patterns.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, the 27 year old also does paintings and collages that cheekily combine hand lettering with old newspaper images, business stationery, blueprints, pornography, and photos from CPR manuals. Shortly after graduating from Syracuse University in 2010, he landed in Portland via a residency for young artists led by prominent sculptor John Bisbee.
“I really loved New England – my dad grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire,” says Sears, who also spent summers at Camp Belknap on Lake Winnipesaukee. “Before I knew it, it was home.”
Sears is entrepreneurial, moving comfortably in and out of the commercial and artistic worlds. That’s also true of some of his clients, a major one being the local Oxbow Brewing Company of Newcastle and Portland. These days, where there is an art scene, there is usually also a craft brewery (or three). The artisanship behind Oxbow’s Belgian farmhouse ale-inspired brews is reflected in Sears-designed labels, as well as wall murals in the Newcastle brewery and, in the Portland taproom, barstool tops made from – you guessed it – wooden signs.
Sears is excited to be co-curating a show this summer called Ode to Letters through the Biddeford, Maine art collective Engine. “It’s a three-part show of work – graffiti art, sign painting, and letterpress – that exhibits a love for letters,” he explains. And he and his girlfriend, artist Tessa Greene O’Brien, recently received a grant through the Space Gallery’s Kindling Fund to start a mural initiative in Portland – one with a focus on contemporary art.
“It’s a chance to bring contemporary art, which might not be found outside of a museum or a gallery, to a public forum,” Sears says. Now, that’s a good sign.
The article first appeared on the Take site on February 18th, 2015.