Mike & Darla Jackson...Golden Era Studios
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
"So how is our picture going to look in about 5 years?" That's what I was asking myself sometime in the beginning months of 1995. One of our lease periods would be coming to an end even though we would have four or five more options to renew for one year at a time. In September of 1995, we would have celebrated our 9th full year of business in Jackson Hole and my 22nd year in the business. Without owning our building we always felt vulnerable in an ever escalating economy and high land values. We had developed a strong, healthy business but it always seemed like the legs could be kicked out from under it without much struggle. Our landlord had hinted around about selling the building a couple of times and he would always give us the first option, but at about $500000 I never felt the purchase was a real option. Also, knowing that if he did sell the building to someone else for that amount, the new owner would be looking for any reason to nullify the lease.
We looked around our valley and never really found a suitable and affordable solution. We knew we had about $110,000 equity in our house and wondered if we could find another town which could support us while making the kinds of signs we wanted to make. We found one in southern Colorado and signed a bunch of papers to start the purchase on the new house. We put the business up for sale, figuring it would be easier to sell all the stuff than to move it. Actually we were hoping it would sell but not expecting to find a buyer in a short time period. In 1986 we had moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming from a suburb of Oklahoma City. That trailer had 33 thousand pounds of stuff in it and we had accumulated a bunch more during the past 9 years. We mentioned to the realtor that listed our house that we were going to try to sell the business and as luck would have it, she sent us the eventual buyer within only a few days!
Well, to make a long story a little shorter, we ended up selling the business and we ended up not moving to Colorado. Instead we stayed in Jackson Hole and started a small business called Golden Era Studios. The name is a bit elusive on purpose. It is kind of a hodge podge of small enterprises which we can run out of our house and garage. Currently we are working some "Art Glass" projects-and we have some great plans and expectations for that part of the venture. I have been writing articles for the trade magazines for roughly 15 years-mostly for SignCraft Magazine in which I have my own monthly column. With a little notoriety from the articles and awards, I spent part of last year going around to some of the trade shows and meetings giving slide shows and training seminars. In 1996, I ended up in San Paolo (Brazil), Ontario (Canada), Captiva Island (Florida), Estes Park (Colorado), Des Moine (Iowa), St. Paul (Minn), and Sydney (Australia)-oh yes I can't forget beautiful downtown Fargo (ND) at the International Letterheads Meeting. My frequent flyer looks pretty healthy after all that. That was fun but I don't plan on doing it in 1997 much, if at all.
During the past year, I have kept up the articles for my column in SignCraft. That started about 18 years ago when I sent in a pile of photos along with my subscription. Before long I got a call from Tom and after a couple of feature articles, I began writing a few articles and how-to's. By 1986 the articles became fairly commonplace. In the spring of 1986 we decided to close our shop in Oklahoma and search for a place which better suited the wooden signs I loved making. Darla and I spent most of 7 months driving around the country. 23,000 miles and through 38 states in fact. That was a real eye opener. We saw lots of techniques, styles and also many different approaches to operating a sign business. In the end, we realized how "retail" oriented the sign business really is. Location was a key factor in any new future operation. We did find several towns which suited our fancy, but the lack of a good location for the shop kept us headed down the road looking for exactly the right spot. While on the road, I began writing a lot of articles for SignCraft. We needed the money and the new information we were learning was being passed on.
After we finally decided on Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we headed back to Oklahoma and loaded up the trailer. After all, our last name was Jackson, the business name already had a good reputation with lots of awards and recognition-Jackson Signs. There wasn't a business already called Jackson Signs. It all seemed to fit. Within the first few months we were busy and it kept getting busier. For nine years we were busy. At times, too busy.
I learned the sign business from some really good sign painters in Oklahoma City. One was Glen Newcomer and the other, George Seelander. Both were great with the brush. Jackson Signs was started in 1973 while I was getting my degree in Fine Art in Edmond, Oklahoma. By graduation in 1976 the business was well on its way. After a while, I started leaning towards the dimensional wooden signs and neither Glen nor George seemed too interested in them. Darla got her start in the sign business by attending a year at Detroit Lakes Vo-Tech in Minnesota. We met while she was working at another shop in Oklahoma City. After a while she was working at my shop. She is a great talent-and very accurate with the brush.
I saw my first computer aided machine in about 1983...a Gerber Signmaker III. I could be wrong but I do think I bought the first one in Oklahoma. That started the never ending progression towards integrating technology into my traditional approach to the craft. By the time we sold the business last year, we had just about all the good stuff including a computer controlled router and Edge vinyl printer. I've spent a fortune on computers, books, and upgrades. That will probably never end.
In 1982, I got an invitation to the Boise B-B-Q-a Letterheads meet hosted by Noel Weber in Boise, Idaho. That really changed my life. By the fall of 1982, I hosted the Oklahoma Bash. It was the first "large" meeting of about 135 people and seemed to kick off a bunch of meetings that followed in a feverish pace. Since then, I have attended about 30 meetings-lost count a long time ago. While in Jackson Hole, we hosted several small meetings. We carved Totem Poles at one, made dimensional stuff at another and did all kinds of casting and mold making techniques the last one. Those small meetings are a blast!
Not long after we sold the shop, while gearing up to start the glass art work, I came up with the idea to digitize some of our favorite turn of the century designs. This actually turned into a lot of work and dedication. The new name Golden Era Studios was a natural for the new small venture. It fit into our plan of doing a lot of small projects which are fun to do and contribute to our overall income. The first volume sold fairly well and I ended up digitizing two more volumes which are now being sold on CD roms-called "Classic Sign Painter's Ornaments". Many of the industries top designers and sign makers are now using them. We have had a lot of requests for old time fonts lately and that is an option for the future but I'm not committed to them yet.
When I was a kid, my parents would buy my brother and I some plastic cowboys and Indians made by Hartland Plastics. The company that made them has been out of business for almost 40 years. As it turns out, there is a big demand for the small guns, knives, hats and accessories which were easily lost or broken. I had been aggressively collecting them for the past five or six years and know almost all of the collectors. Recently, I used some of the knowledge learned at the casting meeting and started making reproduction parts out of resin plastic. Still under the Golden Era Studios name, we have begun selling those parts to the collectors. Many of the pieces require delicate airbrushing and fine lines which are only routine to a good sign painter. Also, the background in the sign business allowed me to find the best kinds of paints to use on the plastics. Some of the original sets sell for over $1000 now. I have been doing retouching and repainting on the original pieces for several years now. This hobby, turned business, is still quite fun and rewarding.
Darla has been working off and on at the old shop. She gets paid well and doesn't have much of the day to day stress that you get when you run the business. An antique store also hires her to do restoration and retouching on some of their really valuable pieces and some of their reproduction projects. There's lots of variety and she likes it. Occasionally, the owner of the old shop hires on of us to do some training and consultation. Since our schedules are much more flexible than before, we get to spend more time with our kids and their activities. I still do some pure design work-much of which is done on the computer. I don't think we miss the day to day grind of the old shop. We do miss some of the instant money it can generate, but we seem to stay busy every day doing something. I am looking forward to the challenges of 1997 and the possibilities of the young glass art business.
Copyright © 1996 The SignMan, Revised Jan.14,1997