"If you build it, they
Well, that's kinda how it started. Last spring, my friend, Keith Quel, and I were involved in a discussion of why his business was doing so poorly. Although he had been in his building for 3 years, he still was having trouble drumming up auto body work. I repeatedly told him that maybe his dowdy-looking building and lackluster signage had something to do with the problem.
After all, he had paid someone hundreds of dollars for a poorly laid-out, rustoleum-lettered sign, and his cousin had painted his roadside signs. Surely they were getting his message across...To me, the message was that he was a fly-by-night, Earl Scheib-type place. (He had gotten the signs before he knew me)
Anyhoo, I told him that I was a member of a tribe of crazy and talented sign painters known as Letterheads. I told him that maybe they could help. I faxed my buddy Mike Meyer and asked how one went about putting together a meet. Was this something that I could do? Would people show up? He faxed back saying, think of a theme, charge an entry fee to help pay for expenses, ask for donations from local businesses and suppliers, contact motels, etc. He said, "The sky's the limit! Go for it!" So I did.
The theme was easy- I live on Route 8, the business was on Route 8, and Route 8 is one wild and krazy road. Also, it is Butler County's sesquicentennial, Route 8 was originally a toll road, so I threw in some Seneca Indians and a Conestoga wagon. Keith wanted cars...I thew them in too.
Keith was still skeptical about why people who didn't even know him would pay to come and paint on his building. I had been invited to Chuck Wago, the annual meet held by Big City Signs in Johnstown. I took Keith to let him see first hand just what Letterheads are like. He was astounded.
Bill Krupinski, the infamous toon jockey from Jefferson, Wisconsin, is my other buddy and frequent faxer. He said he'd draw me a toon if I painted him a panel with one of my goofy waitress chicks on it. I like to doodle irreverent sketches of people from my past as well as less-than-perfect customers. So he sent out a Krazy Kartoon.
I sent out preliminary flyers to friends that I had met at meets, other local sign folk, and names I pulled out of trade magazines. In addition, I petitioned companies for donations of supplies. Later, I sent out final flyers and had the meet posted on Letterville by Steve & Barb. I notified all the sign magazines, and a few local TV and radio stations, plus some newspapers.
I was discouraged by the lack of feedback from artists, but a few places did donate things, such as Ronan, One-Shot, Laminators, Inc. Davey Banner, and the gold leaf guy from Suffern, New York. Two local motels chipped in a discount rate. I traded signs for the beer and pop, and also for fried chicken, ground beef, and hot sausage. A neighbor sells Pepperidge Farm bread, which he donated. My nephew sells Archway cookies; he sent a big box of those. Keith's friends and my sisters and sisters-in-law did everything from loaning tables to baking cookies, tossing salads, and letting people camp in their yards.
It all kind of fell together. Yes, it was a lot of work, but not the aggravating kind. I talked Keith into painting his building, an important preparatory step if he would be having a mural added. We chose a bright blue, which was much more noticeable than the dirty white that the building was. His friends all pitched in and we painted the building in July.
By August 10th, I had 15 artists from 6 states and one Canadian province signed up. I ordered T-Shirts from Classic Ink, a Butler silk-screener. Bill's design came out beautifully.
August 18th, the first day of the meet, started out rainy and chilly. John Hodgins of Batavia, NY, and his grandson, Aaron, were the first to arrive. Dave Hellman, a wood carver from Kentucky pulled in. Barry Strawser and Tom Workman, both Pennsylvanians, rolled in next. They pulled a fender out of Keith's junk pile and began to stripe it, since nothing could be done outside. I put on coffee and prayed for sunshine.
More folks began to drift in. The half-pints of One-Shot were cracked open and the festivities began. A reporter from the Butler Eagle stopped in for a scoop. We got pizza, and the skies cleared. The mural began in earnest under the direction of John Hodgins, Ed "CJ" Williams, and Judy Lynn Shafer, the latter two being Pennsylvanians.
Bob Timmerman rolled in from Ithaca, NY and gave tips on casual script between painting panels. CJ Williams produced a panel for me, complete with an ancient nickname of mine, "Silly Jilly". We met in Mazeppa last year and were shocked to learn that we had attended the same high school. He had visited the diner where I had attempted to waitress as a teenager, and gotten the dirt on me from an old associate of mine. (By the way, that's also where I met Millie, the waitress I usually draw for kicks.)
I nearly died when Millie's son Mike showed up! Turns out that he is a dear friend of CJ Williams. I just happened to have a panel depicting his mom, and he wanted to see it. I'm just glad he didn't punch me out!
Mike Duncan pulled in from Virginia. George Wamsley dropped by from Maryland. They were thrilled to be attending their first meet. Steve and Barb Shortreed arrived from Ontario. By 6:30, everyone was famished, so we put out some supper. Many people said they would have come for the food alone. In Butler, we know how to feed you right!
In the evening, some moths descended into the panel jam area to flit about our heads. I made a comment about them being "Butler Bugs" in my horrible Pittsburgh accent. Unkl Ian must have gotten a kick out of my dialect, because he kept mentioning about those pesky Butler bugs.
George was also attending a medieval festival in the area, so he left to camp out there. Tom Workman slept in his truck. Everyone else had motel rooms. By 12:00 am, only Ian Griffith, Mike Duncan, and I remained. I pried the quills from their paint-encrusted fingers and booted them out. Tomorrow was another day...
And what a day it was! Sunny, gorgeous, with more people showing up all the time. The gang from Big City Signs showed up in their PT Cruiser. Jeff Lang and Bill Beckner came too, along with Bill Cosharek, Ken Bucher, and Rick Davanzati, all Pennsylvanians. Rick Kubicki from Ohio arrived in his embossed-looking Bronco, airbrushed so skillfully that you literally had to feel it to believe it.
It was a first-time meet for several attendees. Even long-time Letterheads were glad to shoot the breeze with Rick Davanzati, a 40-year veteran of the sign trade. He has been my mentor for several years and is a fellow Butlerite. The camaraderie and the sheer talent of the panel jammers blew Rick away.
A few locals with motorcycles, reminiscent of the Eric Von Zipper gang, rolled in wanting stripes. Bill Beckner striped a pickup and a motorcycle. CJ Williams painted feathers on the Harley of a one-eyed biker. His other eye nearly popped out when he saw it. While Barry Strawser striped a Harley, Pat Kerr, Bob Hovanek, and Jeff Lang worked their magic with glass gilding. Tom Workman laid out a boat transom, and I filled it in. The Butler Eagle photographer dropped in for a few pictures.
Meanwhile, the mural continued to form. Doug, Evelyn, and Amber Williams did fill-in, along with Steve Shortreed, Deb Fowler, Judy Lynn, Ken Bucher, George Wamsley, and Rick Kubicki who did awesome airbrush work on a Prowler and a '69 Dart, complete with a Rat Fink.
Two of my sisters dropped by. I even got a surprise visit from my mom, who has yet to be convinced that I have a "real" job. She was really impressed by all the Krazy artists. My brother the magistrate stopped in, but nobody was arraigned.
By Saturday evening, things were really shaping up. There was plenty of consuming food and beverages in mass quantities, and we went through one heck of a lotta One-Shot. Bob Timmerman gave impromptu lessons in rendering a freehand script that bounced off the paper. Bill Beckner strummed a note or two on his guitar. Using his laptop, Steve hooked up HeadTV on the Internet.
It was so much fun that nobody wanted to go to bed. The Big City kids, Jeff Lang, and Bill Beckner camped out around a small fire in the back yard. Lucky Bill Cosharek got to sleep in the guest bedroom above the garage, which is decorated out the wazoo with Oscar the Grouch memorabilia. I'm still not sure he has recovered, but he wasn't a bit crabby the next day.
Things wound down around 1:30 am, but by the time I arrived at 8 am, they were swinging again. I made some cruddy coffee, Keith brought some gommy donuts, and Bill Beckner tuned into a groovy bluesy-folksey radio station. The race was on to finish the mural and all the cool panels.
Steve added a yellow PT Cruiser (he said he rarely paints at a meet, but the Butler Bug was contagious) and Judy threw in a Sign Police Harley. Rick Kubicki and CJ Wiliams got out their airbrushes and started spraying.
With Monday morning, that hangover feeling set in. It's not like how you feel after a drinking binge. It's more like a let-down that everything is over. One one hand, you feel so inspired after seeing all that talent whizzing past at the speed of light. But on the other hand, it's back to reality. You still get customers popping in who want a 4' x 8' for fifty bucks, or someone bringing in a layout courtesy of their 8-year-old computer nerd kid.
But underneath that hangover is the warm glow of fellowship, knowing you've made more good friends (who know what the hell you're talking about and where you're coming from, who you can call for advice or just to gab) and learned some new tricks.
I was so busy that I didn't have time to feel blue for long. That's why it's the middle of November and I'm just getting this out! A note from CJ Williams arrived about a week after Krazy 8. It seems that we weren't finished, after all...
When CJ got back home to Christiana, PA, which is in Amish country, he picked up his local newspaper. On the front page was the photo of a beautifully rendered Conestoga wagon. A collector of these wagons lived in his area, and had commissioned an artist to paint a mural on his barn. CJ visited the man, who owns several antique wagons and such. He has a scale model Conestoga, one of two in existence- the other one resides at the White House.
CJ took copious notes and photos, then called me up and asked if I had any plans for the last weekend in September. He wanted to re-do the wagon from Krazy 8 to make it more historically accurate. I said "Sure!" I had the time, and plenty of leftover One-Shot.
God sent us a gorgeous early fall weekend. CJ got out his notes and photos and went to work. I did fill-in. He knew so much that it was astounding. I have never seen anyone take so much care and dedication to making something "right". He researched everything from the type of draft horses used, to the minute harness details, to the reason the horses had large racks of bells mounted over their collars.
We left the cute sexy pair of legs that Judy Lynn had made poking out of the original wagon, but CJ re-did the entire Conestoga, from stem to stern. I added some hills and trees behind the existing Native Americans. I also put a beefy-looking sign police cop by the Harley Judy Lynn did. This completed the mural.
It's hard to know when to stop sometimes. But it's also hard to cram an entire mural into just one weekend, especially when you had rain for almost the entire first day.
Keith used to complain that he didn't get enough business. Now he's booked at least two months in advance. It's amazing what a little paint and a lot of heart can do.
I put the Krazy 8 photos into my portfolio. I have had so many clients since then who can't say enough about the mural. It's given my career a shot in the arm. People always said I was one of those crazy artists. Now everybody knows it.
Keith and I would once again like to extend our thanks to everyone who made this possible, either by showing up, helping out, donating supplies, or just plain believing that this could happen. Thanks for all of the magnificent panels you left us as well.
I would also like to send a big "thanks!" to Mike Meyer. He is such a unique and upbeat person. I have been corresponding with him since 1993 or so. He taught me what negative space was, told me to get a Mike Stevens book, and never once made fun of the lousy sign pictures I sent him for critique. He and his son Caleb picked me and my son Bill up at the train station in Red Wing for the Mazeppa Muster, after my train was at least two hours late. Then, he loaned me his American Driving Machine Chevy van to use for the duration of my stay. He is such an inspiration to all sign people. He makes you want to go out and sling paint!
And a special thank you to Bill Krupinski. He is my constant faxing companion and fellow toon-lover. He has been such a help to me in the past year that I don't know how I got on for those 36 long years that I didn't know him.
It was a lifetime goal for me to host a meet. I would like to encourage other Letterheads to go ahead, just do it! Have a meet, or at least attend one. It really will change your life.