I consider myself fortunate to have had a sign making career. I feel particularly fortunate in that I learned the art of hand lettering, and how to make signs, before computers invaded the trade. When I was learning how to letter, computers were but a rumor. Today, nine-nine percent of the sign shops in this country produce most, if not all, of their work with computers and computer-controlled tools. I refuse to go that route. For me, the new system removes the simplicity and the soul from the work.
One of my mentors at sign school had learned his trade during the golden years of American sign painting, which were the first twenty-five years of the 20th century. Thank you, Mr. C. The skills and techniques I acquired from him over thirty years ago would have been familiar to any sign maker from the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century, or even earlier.
Sign making is not as old as the “First Profession”, but surely the sign makers came hard at the heels of the Firsters, for their skills became desired as soon as the Firsters realized they could turn more tricks if they hung out a shingle.
OK, OK, the shingle makers came before the sign makers. But not by much.
Pete Ortiz was the primary Martha’s Vineyard sign maker during the ‘fifties, ‘sixties,’seventies, and even the ‘eighties. He lettered and silkscreened thousands and thousands of jobs in the course of his career.
The truest successor to Pete was Maynard Silva, whose stellar careers as sign painter and as blues musician were cut short, far too soon, by cancer. The last time I saw Maynard was on the ferry, when we met by chance, one day when we were each crossing over to Woods Hole. The last thing Maynard said to me was, “Don’t ever stop making music.”
Dear reader, don’t you stop, either.
Petronio Ortiz was a good man. He had a really, really big Latin heart. To be in his presence made a person feel warm. He was probably the person most responsible for Maynard’s decision to be a sign maker. His influence came from a random act of kindness. Pete worked at Brickman’s clothing store for years, and the Silva family came in to buy a yellow raincoat for little Mikey. Mike was Maynard’s handle when he was a little kid.
Mikey was feeling shy and awkward in the store, and Pete picked up on the discomfort. He told the boy and his family to wait a minute, took the raincoat, and disappeared with it. Soon afterwards, he returned with the garment, now handlettered with Mike’s name on the front of it. Maynard was thrilled, and never forgot that act of kindness. Acts of kindness can have lasting effects.
Maynard subsequently apprenticed to Pete, in his teen years. One day they were lettering Harry Athearn’s mail truck. Each one of them took a side to paint, and when they were done, although the doors said the same thing, the sizes and details of the roman letters they had used were very different. Pete shrugged the disparity off, with one of the great truths of sign painting. “You can only see one side of a truck at a time….”
When you’re lettering a truck, layout can be complicated by vehicle configuration and trim location. The presence of handles and hardware imposes obstacles.
Once, Pete lettered a big truck owned by an Oak Bluffs family-owned grocery store. The back of the box had doors that divided in the middle, and that division point had a pair of vertical bars for securely locking the doors. That division created a no-mans-land in the center, where letters could not be placed.
For years afterwards, that truck carried the title of this essay.