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Last night we stopped by Fourth Wall Project in the Fenway neighborhood to help Kenji celebrate the closing of his first solo show, Etudes. Kenji’s art is incredible and the show was a great success but it was also bittersweet, as it represents one of Fourth Wall’s last shows ever.

For more than 5 years, Fourth Wall has been an artistic force in the Fenway neighborhood, showing works of art ranging from a visual history of hardcore music to a group show exploring the strange world of cryptozoology. The gallery’s closing comes alongside a flood of development in the area and there are rumors that the space will become the site for a new Wahlburgers restaurant. The closing also coincides with the demise of our own There’s Never an Off Season sign, which until a few weeks ago, resided just around the corner from Fourth Wall. 

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While neither the gallery nor the sign were ever intended to be permanent fixtures in the neighborhood, there’s something poignant about two very visible, though temporary, artistic endeavors departing almost simultaneously. In an effort to honor these two creative enterprises in the Fenway, I asked Fourth Wall’s founder and gallery director Oliver Mak to share his thoughts on the gallery’s history, his take on the arts in Boston, and what’s next for him. I also wanted to document our process for creating the Never an Off Season sign to commemorate our experience and show the work that went into it. 

•Interview with Oliver Mak from Boston’s Fourth Wall Project•

BDS: When did Fourth Wall open as a gallery and what was your intention in creating this space?

OM: We opened in March of 2009 with a book launch for Radio Silence, a visual history of hardcore music. My partners formed Bodega in 2006 and always had a goal of creating more avenues for creatives and artists in a city that is lacking. Boston keeps losing its most promising musicians and creators to NY/LA. We wanted to make one more reason to stay.

BDS: Do you think you’ve achieved what you set out to do with Fourth Wall?

OM: Yes! We used no small amount of alchemy to sustain a giant space for exhibitions from the underground. It was a testament to the scene that we lasted longer than we ever thought we would be in this location.

BDS: You mentioned that you knew the space would be temporary when you opened it. Did you have any idea it would be open as long as it was or were you always waiting for the other shoe to drop? 

OM: That was part of the appeal for us from the jump. We were guaranteed 2 years and then after that we knew there would be a 90 day notice for when they were going to either demolish or develop the space. With a finite timespan for the space, it gave motivation to do as much as possible.

BDS: How much notice did you get?  

OM: We got the agreed upon 90 day notice as we were installing the current show.  We waited a bit to tell anyone so as not to overshadow the opening press for Études by Kenji Nakayama (which also is our best show to date).

BDS: How do you feel about access to the arts in Boston? 

OM: It’s a tough city due to prohibitively high costs, few art buyers, and an arcane permitting and licensing system. We were somehow able to navigate that through the resources and connections of Bodega, but it is nearly impossible for independent galleries to survive in the current climate.  That’s why you see so many DIY art spaces in lofts and basements—it’s the only way to do it.

BDS: What’s next for you?

OM: Bodega just opened up a pop up in Tokyo that’s doing well, so I’ll be spending some time on design & operations for the brand/shop. Fourth Wall will start working with partner galleries in the Boston area and we’ll try to liberate some walls for murals as well.   

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Like Oliver, we’re grateful for the time that our sign inhabited the Fenway neighborhood and for the exposure that it afforded us (we signed it pretty prominently!). In the sign business, you’re prepared for the possibility of businesses closing and taking your signs with them and this job was no different: in fact, we knew when we went into the project that the building was slated for demolition. However, we’d be lying if we said that we didn’t romantically envision the building going out in a blaze of glory, complete with wrecking balls and plumes of smoke, or that what has replaced our sign isn’t entirely underwhelming. But we had a great time making it and we think it’s important to document the process—especially in our current era of ever-changing urban sprawl. So here are some behind-the-scenes tidbits and photos from the creation of our largest sign to date. (All photos by Best Dressed Signs unless otherwise indicated.) 

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Photo by Carl Frisso Angell

The “There’s Never an Off Season” slogan was created by Korn Design, a design firm who had been hired by Samuels and Associates, the Fenway’s premier developers, to come up with a campaign that would draw hip, young techie-types to the Fenway neighborhood before the building would be torn down to make way for an office building. Korn Design came up with the “There’s Never an Off Season” tagline as a way to assert that the Fenway neighborhood has more to offer than just its most famous venue, Fenway Park. Once the campaign was approved, we were hired to design the lettering and hand paint the billboard sign. Korn decided on the color palette and called on us to come up with two designs from which to choose.

This project happened to come about while Frisso, our trusty Norwegian apprentice, was here working with us. Both Frisso and Josh sketched a design and Korn and Samuels decided to give the go ahead to Josh’s design. 

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Josh’s design above, Frisso’s below

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Like any large scale sign job, the first step was to make a site visit to assess the surface and get proper measurements. The Point Building, as it’s called, houses a D’Angelos sub shop, a Red Sox souvenir shop, some band practice studios, and the construction offices for Samuels and Associates and other developers in the area. The building is old and damaged and we realized what we were getting into when we saw the rusted metal frame and uneven turf that we’d have to maneuver a boom lift on (thankfully Josh is the son of a truck driver/motorcycle instructor and, in my experience, can drive just about anything). 

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The next step was to make a pattern. Since the letters for this job are over six feet high and the total length is about 300 feet long, we knew that tracing and perforating the pattern ourselves would be way too laborious and time consuming so we enlisted the help of New Bohemia Signs to make the patterns for us with their plotter. Even still, the letters were so large that they were only able to print the tops of the letters on one sheet of paper and the bottoms on another. Altogether it took 16 patterns and some drawing on site to make the guidelines for this sign. 

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When we arrived on site to start working, the building had been painted from its previous tan and rusted brown to a bright blue. The intention of the project was to draw attention to the area and express the imminent vitality of the neighborhood. We were just happy not to have to roll out the background color! 

Once the top and bottom lines were snapped to ensure that the letters would all come out straight, the pattern was rolled out and pounced with chalk to make the guidelines. On the scale of this building, the giant rolls of pattern paper look so small! 

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Since the letters have dimensions and shadows, it took several different applications of paint to achieve the desired effect. For example, the “Never” and “Off” were to have a convex dimensional effect done in pink and yellow. However, since the background had been painted a dark blue, the letters needed to be first painted white so that the yellow would show up against the dark background. 

All in all, it took 4 weeks of painting on site (mostly just Josh and Frisso on the Boylston Street side and Josh, Frisso, and me on the Brookline Ave side). 

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Photo by Mike Chew

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Photo by Mike Chew

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Photo by Mike Chew

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Photo by Mike Chew

We finished the sign on May 1st, 2013, just a few days after Frisso left us to return to Norway. In the time that’s passed since its completion, Josh and I have loved passing by and fondly remembering that month last spring when we worked on it in with Frisso. While the sign didn’t receive much local Boston press, it has since been published in an article in Communication Arts Magazine and in Alex Fowkes’ Drawing Type book. 

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A few weeks ago, while driving by, we noticed that the building was being painted from bright blue to a more neutral beige. We were excited about this prospect, as we thought a lighter color on the building would draw more attention to the sign itself and accentuate the lettering design and hand painted execution. When the whole building was painted it looked really nice. 

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But then we saw this… white Times New Roman font printed onto giant sheets of black vinyl, grommeted over the sign. It seems that Samuels has decided on a new campaign, the Faces of Fenway (ironically, Oliver Mak and Fourth Wall Project were featured as one of these “faces” of the neighborhood, shortly prior to their eviction notice).

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While we can’t say we’re not disappointed in what’s happening in the Fenway, we also can’t say we’re surprised. Development and urban sprawl are often short-sighted endeavors, designed to appeal to and placate the masses. Wouldn’t you rather eat a hamburger made by a famous Boston actor who doesn’t actually live in Boston than go to an art show featuring local talent? Wouldn’t you rather your eyes rest easy on a comfortingly replaceable vinyl sign than a brightly colored, hand designed and hand lettered piece of art? It was good while it lasted! Only onward and upward from here!! 

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As you may know, the Pre-Vinylite Society Its Virtue is Immense show at Lot F Gallery in Boston has been a great success so far! It got some glowing reviews in various media outlets, including the Boston Globe! Needless to say, none of this would be possible without the incredible talent of the artists involved: Ashley Fundora, Bob Dewhurst, Brian Kaspr, Carl Frisso Angell, Chris Dobell, Christian Cantiello, Colt Bowden, Cooper, Corinna D’Shoto, Damon Styer, Enamel Kingdom, Heather Diane Hardison, Jimmy Spike Birmingham, Josh Luke, Kenji Nakayama, Pickles, Ted Kiley, Will Lynes, and Will Sears

We wanted to share some photos from the opening taken by our good friend and extremely talented New York based photographer, Nicki Ishmael. If you missed the opening or if you’re interested in hearing more about the concept of the show and seeing some sign painting techniques, we’re doing a gallery talk and sign painting demo on Saturday, April 12th from 1-3pm. Details are here. Hope to see you there! 

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imageChristian Cantiello, Virtue, 2014

“Its virtue is immense. Good writing in the classes cultivates the eye, hand, and judgment, promotes habits of accuracy, observation, neatness, and good taste, conduces to good order discipline and method, and by contagion infuses a salutary stimulus into every other branch of study taken up.”1

John Jackson, The Theory and Practice of Handwriting, 1896

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Detail of Josh Luke’s The Pre-Vinylite Society, 2014

What is the Pre-Vinylite Society?

The Pre-Vinylite Society is a loose network of self-ordained sign enthusiasts and advocates for an improved urban aesthetic. The Pre-Vinylite movement grew out of co-founder Josh Luke’s desire for an inclusive forum where sign painters of all levels could share their work and get constructive advice without judgment. Deriving their name from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of 19th century English artists and writers, the Pre-Vinylite Society aims to create signs, art, and writings that convey an astute cognizance of the aesthetic built environment and a desire to create new, forward focused art that respects the traditions and techniques of the past.

The idea of a “pre-vinyl” world connotes a time before vinyl sign technology nearly decimated the hand painted sign industry in the 1980s. But despite the emphasis on a bygone era that “Pre” suggests, the Pre-Vinylites are not are not a society of Luddites, shunning technology or advocating for a return to a “simpler” time. Pre-Vinyl does not equal Anti-Vinyl. The Pre-Vinylites do wish, however, to commemorate the pre-vinyl era and they refuse to let the age-old traditions of the craft die out. The Pre-Vinylites are future-oriented—they care about tradition because they value posterity’s ability to access history. They believe that artistic vigilance in the face of mass conformity can deliver us from a homogenous existence.

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Bob Dewhurst, Script is Descriptive, 2014

Its Virtue is Immense: a Pre-Vinylite Society Tribute to Script Lettering

This show presents examples of script lettering from some of the best sign painters from around the world and showcases the aesthetic qualities of beautiful hand lettering. But its message runs much deeper than aesthetics alone. With the current debate about the future of cursive handwriting in American schools, this show explores questions of privilege, access, and the role of the human hand in an increasingly digital world.

Script lettering conveys elegance, grace, sophistication, and class. In centuries past, a “good hand” was viewed as a sign of virtue and breeding, while a “bad hand” (never mind a total inability to write in cursive) was deemed uncivilized. Script lettering featured on a shop sign can communicate that the goods or services provided are high quality. But hand lettered cursive—whether painted on signs or scribbled in personal diaries—is becoming endangered as more and more schools are forgoing its instruction in favor of more practical skills like typing. In our current technological age of immediacy, cursive writing, like sign painting, is considered aesthetically pleasing but non-essential.

As the debate about cursive education rages, advocates and opponents stake their claims on cursive’s relation to the value of aesthetics, its role in cognitive development, its usefulness in the face of perpetual advancements in technology, and the part it plays in developing or maintaining a sense of self. At the heart of the arguments, however, is a question of history and posterity: what will we lose if cursive is abandoned? Typing is faster, more legible, and more accessible than handwriting. In a similar vein, vinyl signs are faster, cheaper, and more interchangeable than a hand painted sign. If cursive handwriting is no longer taught in schools, only those with initiative and access will be able to learn it. If cheaply made, poorly designed signs are allowed to pervade our cities and towns, how will anyone know what a quality sign looks like?

This show presents a response to the current debate about the future of cursive handwriting and a rally for continued appreciation of hand painted signs.

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Excerpt from B. Hearn’s The Art of SignWriting. (London:B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1953), 38

Sign Painting and Cursive Handwriting

Sign painting as a viable trade reached its zenith in the mid 20th century and had, by the 1980s, declined into near oblivion. The advent of vinyl technology in the late 20th century made the production of signs faster, cheaper, and easier—allowing any novice with the funds to buy a vinyl plotter and the wherewithal to punch the buttons the ability to embark on a lucrative career as a sign maker. Fleeting were the days of apprenticeships and trade schools that taught the centuries-old secrets of how to shape letters with a lettering quill and how to make gold stick to glass. With the introduction of vinyl signs came a new era in sign-making: one that contributed greatly to the way many of our cities and towns look today.

In his 1956 Lettering for Advertising, Mortimer Leach explains that “the Formal Scripts, or round-hand letters, have been used in advertising layouts for many years. The classic beauty and legibility of these forms has kept them from becoming dated and I feel sure that they will continue to be of value, despite the everchanging trends in layout design.”At the height of the mid 20th century advertising boom, Leach never dreamed that script letterforms would not only become untrendy, but eventually illegible as future generations will no longer know how to form or decipher cursive writing.

Script, or cursive penmanship, like sign painting, is experiencing a fate of endangerment as more and more schools are opting to omit cursive handwriting from their curriculums. The Common Core, an initiative that details education requirements for children K-12 in the language arts and mathematics, does not list cursive handwriting as a required skill for any grade. According to their website, “forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards.” With many schools prioritizing competence on standardized tests over comprehensive learning, cursive handwriting is being scrapped for more practical skills that are, as the Common Core suggests, more “relevant to the real world.” While the decision to cut cursive instruction is still up to individual schools, for many public schools already struggling with inadequate funding, the decision is pretty clear. 

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Calligrapher’s quill

An Extremely Brief and Incomplete History of Penmanship

The history of hand lettering goes back to the formation of the first phonetic alphabet sometime before the 1st millennium BC. Before the 15th century, almost all writing completed in Europe was done by monks copying religious texts. Once the printing press came along, books became more widely disseminated and literacy surged but still very few people could read and even fewer could write. In 1522 Vicentino Arrighi published the first printed handwriting manual, La Operina. The 32 page woodblock print is still considered “the greatest italic manual of all time.” It features Arrighi’s recommendations on spacing, slant, and how best to join letters. In addition to instructing the aspiring penman on letterform Arrighi also sought to educate would-be scribes on the tools of the trade, including the best quills, inkwells, etc.3 Because La Operina was printed, it was reproduced more readily and reached a wider audience than would have previously been possible. However, writing at this time was still an endeavor limited to the very privileged of society. 

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A page from Arrighi’s La Operina 

By the mid 19th century, literacy had grown exponentially as a result of advancing technologies in printing and more widespread education laws. By the 1850s, America saw a rise in capitalism that resulted in an unprecedented need for scribes and scriveners to make copies of important business transactions. Needless to say, good penmanship was an invaluable and employable skill. Around 1850, Platt Rogers Spencer, “the father of American handwriting,” devised a new and revolutionary method of handwriting that was used throughout his chain of business schools.4

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Platt Rogers Spencer

The new penmanship, coined Spencerian Script, was a flowing, ornate cursive intended to mimic the forms of nature. A poet at heart in the era of American Transcendentalism, Spencer wished his script to convey the ease and flow of the natural world while addressing the need for swift correspondence in a world that was ever speeding up. Spencer refined his instruction down to seven principles, which, if mastered, could combine to create a beautiful Spencerian hand. By the end of the 19th century, however, Spencerian script had fallen out of fashion in favor of a speedier, more efficient style of writing, but not before becoming immortalized in the Coca-Cola logo.

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Original Coca-Cola logo

In the 1880s, in response to the demand for a faster, plainer, and more practical cursive, A.N. Palmer devised “The Palmer Method,” a standardized method of handwriting that became ubiquitous in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. This method proposed that handwriting should derive from automatic muscle movements and require very little mental effort.This automaticity is attainted through what many sign painters know as practice, practice, practice. I imagine the instruction of 19th century Palmer Method as a nation of steely-eyed nuns with wooden rulers pacing the classroom, watching eagerly for that wayward “O.”

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Example of the Palmer Method

A lesser-known pioneer of handwriting reform who also focused on the physicality of cursive lettering was the man whose words inspired the title of this art show. John Jackson was a British teacher of handwriting who believed very strongly in what he called “vertical writing,” a method of writing that lauded the connection between handwriting and “hygiene” (a word which, in Jackson’s usage, does not mean cleanliness but the virtues of proper posture). Jackson claimed that “vertical writing is the only specific for these abnormal postures and their train of disastrous consequences.”He believed that proper handwriting was a virtuous endeavor and could lead to benefits that reach far beyond a legible hand and decorous posture. 

Though vertical writing had more of an impact in England than it did here in America, it must have seeped across the pond somehow because my own great-grandmother, Julia Maloney (1884-1947) of Lawrence, Massachusetts, was a proficient practitioner of vertical handwriting in her own right. Compare John Jackson’s signature with Nana Julia’s riveting 1900 letter to “Evelyn.”

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From John Jackson’s The Theory and Practice of Handwriting. 1896

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Sample of my great-grandmother’s cursive writing, 1900

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Kenji Nakayama, ABC Script, 2014

Graphology: “A Person’s Handwriting is a Photograph of their Character”7

With the introduction of Remington’s first commercially viable typewriter in 1873, handwriting’s status as the one and only method of quick, practical writing began to wane. But even as the typewriter became the go-to tool of writers and clerks, many transactions and literary endeavors were still conducted with pen and paper and there was still something about handwriting that intrigued both writers and readers. By 1960, when E.C. Matthews’ Sign Painting Course was published, the attitude of many ad-men of the time was that “the modern trend in signs is toward script.” Typewriters, after all, could not produce signs.

Matthews continues,

there is something especially attractive about a good piece of script lettering. It catches the eye, is easy to read and adds a graceful touch to the finished job. Signs are often too stiff looking even when the lettering is good. A word or two in script adds grace, swing, and the necessary curvature to make a good layout.8

Austin, TX sign legend Gary Martin agrees. He believes that script lettering “is beautiful when done right, it can ruin a sign when done poorly.”These judgments are derived from the aesthetic qualities of the letterforms and layout and can determine the success or failure of a sign. In the same way that we judge a sign (and by extension the business above which it hangs) the tendency to judge people based on handwriting seems engrained in our culture.

Though the new age movement has carried handwriting analysis into the 21st century, the 19th and early 20th century was the heyday of graphology (literally: the study of writing). In his 1919 graphological textbook, Graphology: How to Read Character from Handwriting, Hugo Von Hagen suggests, among other things, that “employers can, by studying the handwriting of their employees, guard against laziness, deception, gambling and dishonest tendencies, for an analysis of their handwriting will surely reveal these, if present.”10 What an invaluable tool for the interview process!

Von Hagen also suggests that “cruelty, brutality and animal instincts are expressed in angular handwritings, where all edges and corners of the various letters look like sharp, prickling thorns […] All cruel natures write thus.” 11 On the other hand, “persons who write very plain, pointed capital letters […] always have much love for art and the beautiful in nature; they see at once only the beauty and goodness of their environment before even noticing the unpleasant side.”12

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My very own handwriting, 2014

Edgar Allan Poe was a notorious proponent of the values of graphology, admitting in his 1840s study of marginalia, “for my own part, I by no means shrink from acknowledging that I act, hourly, upon estimates of character derived from chirography [handwriting].”13 George Orwell, too, famously pondered in his 1947 series “As I Please”: “it would be interesting to know whether there is any connection between neat handwriting and literary ability.”14

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Cooper, Holy Shit, 2014

Access, Privilege, and Elitism 

Despite graphology being overwhelmingly debunked as a reliable method of judging character, the tendency to judge academic ability based on handwriting has nevertheless prevailed into our current time. Both advocates and opponents of the continued instruction of cursive cite studies that suggest better handwriting results in better grades. Abigail Walthausen believes that “cursive has become a status marker” because of its classist connotations. As a high school teacher Walthausen observes that students who learned cursive in grade school (mostly those who came from Catholic or other private schools) are often the objects of envy by those who did not learn cursive (students who went to public school) and she considers this discrepancy of privilege unfair. She believes that “learning cursive is a basic right” and suggests that until computers are entirely integrated into both classrooms and standardized test settings, underserved students who do not know how to write or read cursive will be at yet another disadvantage.

Advocates of cursive handwriting do not opt for an either/or scenario, where students either learn cursive or typing skills. No one denies that typing is a necessary and extremely relevant skill in this day and age (obviously I’m typing this right now—it would be tedious and exhausting to write this by hand. In fact, it would be ludicrous). Most cursive advocates propose a comprehensive education that includes both cursive and typing. This solution is not practical, however, especially for schools in lower income areas that cannot afford to teach both methods. But it is in these lower income school districts where students are facing yet another level of discrimination based on their ability or inability to write in cursive. Rachel Jeantel’s infamous admission during the George Zimmerman trial, “I don’t read cursive,” was one of the many prejudices that people used to discredit her testimony and defame her character. If, as Walthausen suggests, cursive is a basic right, eliminating it from our schools or relegating it to elective classes will eventually make it a privilege, reserved for an elite society similar to the penmen who purchased Arrighi’s 1522 La Operina. The masses will not know how to write cursive, but perhaps more importantly, they will not be able to read it. 

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Will Lynes, Class in Session, 2014

Nostalgia and Authenticity: the Role of the Human Hand

Despite the scientific evidence that writing by hand helps students recognize and retain letterforms better than typing and that “cursive writing, compared to printing, is even more beneficial because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters are less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation,” the fact remains that cursive is just not practical or necessary in today’s world. But regardless of its practicality and relevance, the demise of cursive is regrettable because handwriting is still regarded as highly personal endeavor—one that connects many of us to our sense of self or individuality.

As an avid diarist, I’ve witnessed many changes in my own handwriting since I first started recording the events of my day in a Cabbage Patch Kids diary in 1984. Some of these changes occurred naturally as my pen tried to catch up to my racing adolescent thoughts and my writing became more fluid and less contrived. But some of the changes were deliberate, like achieving a unique but dignified signature, as I tried to cultivate a sense of who I was as a person and as a writer. Back then, computers were reserved for final drafts—you couldn’t bring your desktop to a coffee shop and brainstorm. You had to bring a notebook and some pens and freewrite your little heart out on paper, scrawling and scratching as you went, leaving with stained hands and callused fingers.

In her 2009 article, “Handwriting is History,” Anne Trubek agrees with the romantic and nostalgic sentiment that handwriting is connected to individuality, but brushes it off as mere sentimentality. She explains: 

Handwriting slowly became a form of self-expression when it ceased to be the primary mode of written communication. When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one. The supplanted technology is vaunted as more authentic because it is no longer ubiquitous or official. Thus for monks, print was capricious and script reliable. So too today: Conventional wisdom holds that computers are devoid of emotion and personality, and handwriting is the province of intimacy, originality and authenticity.

Trubek explains that supplanting one technology with a more advanced method is historical and inevitable. She argues that the ousted method should not be romanticized but recognized for its usefulness in a specific time and place. She suggests that “what we want from writing […] is cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts” and that the writing itself, not the means by which it gets from the brain to the page, should be what’s important.   

The anxiety surrounding the disconnect between body and machine is a sentiment that strikes a chord with many handwriting and sign painting advocates. Damon Styer, owner of San Francisco’s renowned New Bohemia Signs, suggests “that the more technology pervades every aspect of our lives, the more we feel a hunger for some semblance of human touch, some echo of our own softness—our own fallibility.” This reaction against the onslaught of technology is part of what’s fueling the resurgence of hand painted signs and for Styer, the role of the human hand is the key. Things made by hand convey a sense of authenticity and as much as we embrace and value technology for its role in making our lives easier, we know deep down that everything comes back to the human body.

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Manicule examples from E.C. Matthews’ Sign Painting Course, 1960

As I argue elsewhere, the link between authenticity and nostalgia is deeply rooted in our sense of mortality, which of course is linked to our sense of humanity or “fallibility.” Keypads and computer screens distance us from the letters that we produce and fail to convey an individualized sense of self as the letterforms are standardized into fonts that were created by someone else. Every time we delete a word instead of scratching it out, we’re forgetting our original ideas. Drafting on a computer is easier for sure, but it can’t be denied that something human, something authentic or original, is being lost.

Many commenters on the online articles I’ve cited in this essay point out that future generations will not be able to read the Declaration of Independence and other historical documents that are written in cursive. They will have to rely on transcriptions and trust that the transcribers got it right. Limiting an education in cursive limits access to primary research and it also limits access to our own genealogical histories. The Declaration of Independence and other important historical documents have been or will be transcribed and digitized, but my great-grandmother Julia’s letters will not be. And my teenage journals and diaries will not be. The beautiful script signs in this show will be undecipherable, except by an elite few. The stunted sense of history that will accompany the elimination of cursive handwriting is lamentable.

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Corinna D’Schoto, Lesson, 2014

Is Art the Answer?

But cursive handwriting will survive, if only on the fringes. Anne Trubek suggests that the teaching of cursive be relegated to art departments and its virtues celebrated as are other fine crafts. She claims that traditional trades such as letterpress and stained glass (we could insert sign painting as well) “have a life beyond nostalgia.” Existing and thriving beyond nostalgia is the mission of the Pre-Vinylite Society—if a reverence for the past is nothing but wistful melancholy for a bygone era then there is no hope for the future. In order for traditions to endure, they must be carried forward and entrusted to the next generation.1

Despite its continued delegation as a “lost art,” sign painting has recently seen something of a renaissance as business owners and the general public begin to recognize the value (and perhaps the virtue) of the trade in our technological world of immediate gratification. The trend towards a slower way of doing things is catching on in many fields, including the culinary arts and alternative medicine. Just as the idea of a sign painting art show would have seemed absurd to the practitioners of the trade before the last decade or so, I’m confident that cursive lettering will see a revival in the coming years as more handwriting advocates push past their romantic, nostalgic tendencies and make an effort to bring traditional skills into the future.2

1The International Association of Master Penman and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH) is an organization dedicated to the preservation of cursive handwriting and calligraphy. For more information on their mission and resources, visit their website at iampeth.com

2The earliest recorded exhibition of signs was in London in 1762. Its purpose, however, was not to celebrate the signs as works of art in and of themselves but to ridicule them satirize the very novel idea of exhibiting art. The 1762 Grand Exhibition of the [fictional] Society of Sign Painters will be the subject of an upcoming Pre-Vinylite Society art show that I plan to curate in the near future. Stay tuned!



Notes

1John Jackson, The Theory and Practice of Handwriting: A Practical Manual for School Boards, Teachers, and Students, with Diagrams and Illustrations (London: Samson Low, Marston & Company, 1896), viii.
2 Mortimer Leach, Lettering for Advertising. (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1956), 79.
3 Kitty Burns Florey, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting. (Brooklyn, New York: Melville House Publishing, 2009), 39-40.
4 Ibid. 63
5 Ibid. 75
6 Jackson, The Theory and Practice of Handwriting, 15.
7 Von Hagen, Hugo J.: How to Read Character from Handwriting, a Textbook of Graphology for Experts, Students, and Laymen. (New York: Robert R. Ross, 1919), 1.
8 E.C. Matthews, Sign Painting Course. (Chicago: Nelson-Hall Co., 1960), 35.
9 As quoted in Colt Bowden’s “How to Paint Signs and Influence People: Script Lettering, Vol. 3,” (2013).
10 Von Hagen, Graphology, 2.
11 Ibid. 52
12 Ibid. 55
13 Edgar Allan Poe, “Marganalia—Eureka.” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe,Volume 16. Ed. James A. Harrison, (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company,1902), 19.
14 Orwell, George. “As I Please.” Manchester Evening News for Tribune. 28 Feb. 1947.
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We’re really excited to share our latest project—a collaboration with Korean fashion designer Juun J

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Juun J’s concept for his Fall/Winter collection is Zoot Suit. He wanted his line to evoke a nostalgic, yet futuristic take on the classically rebellious 1940s style. He felt that Josh’s Pre-Vinylite Society painting embodied a resolution of that traditional/innovative dichotomy and wanted to re-interpret Josh’s designs in his collection to be shown at Mens Fashion Week in Paris

When Juun J first contacted us about the collaboration, we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. How would he interpret Josh’s dimensional lettering and design into a wearable garment? The final result exceeded all our expectations and we’re really happy to see sign painting and the Pre-Vinylite Society broadened into a new realm! 

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Killer Diller—designed by Josh Luke, painted by Kenji Nakayama

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The Pre-Vinylite Society—designed and painted by Josh Luke

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Here’s a Samsung commercial that shows behind the scenes at the runway show in Paris. Keep an eye out for some cool shots of the paintings near the end! 

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The Kingsboro Park mural was commissioned by Michael Dupuy of Streetcar Wine & Beer as a tribute to the community that graciously welcomed him and his shop to their Jamaica Plain neighborhood in 2012. Designed by Josh Luke of Boston’s Best Dressed Signs, the mural celebrates public art as a medium that democratizes art by making it available for all to view, experience, and critique. The mural incorporates Massachusetts, Boston, and Jamaica Plain site-specific imagery and honors the technologies that historically allowed art and music to become accessible to the masses. 

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The layout of the design was inspired by chromolithography, a 19th century color printing technology that changed the way the average person related to art. Most chromolithographs of the time were used as advertisements for everything from soap to rapid transportation, but chromolithography also played a large role in art reproduction and education. The industry thrived in Boston in the late 19th century and one particularly successful firm, Louis Prang’s factory, was located just down the street from Kingsboro Park at 286 Roxbury St. in Roxbury.

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A single chromolithograph print requires up to forty stones, each of which prints a single color, building the image up by overlaying the colors to create depth and shading. The stone pictured in the Kingsboro Park mural is printing the final color in an interpretation of Alphonse Mucha’s “Feather”—here, a vibrant blue.

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The image of a music box in the right hand vignette window extends the theme of accessible art into the realm of music. Much like the chromolithograph, which allowed the average person to afford an art reproduction, the music box was the first technology that empowered people to bring recorded music into their homes. The movement towards accessible art and music that the chromolithograph and the music box ushered in broadened the elite confines of art appreciation. 

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The “PVS” inscription on the music box refers to the Pre-Vinylite Society, an informal society founded by Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian of Best Dressed Signs (we sneak it in to almost every sign we paint). The Pre-Vinylite Society is a loose network of sign enthusiasts and advocates for an improved urban aesthetic. The idea of a “pre-vinylite” world connotes a time before vinyl signage decimated the hand painted sign industry in the 1980s but in this case, it also refers to pre-vinyl recorded music devices, such as the music box.

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The mural also addresses narrowing degrees of locality, paying homage to the state of Massachusetts, the City of Boston, Jamaica Plain, and the building that the mural is physically painted on. The groceries, fruits, and vegetables depicted in the center vignette, as well as the mayflowers that weave throughout the mural as a whole, represent the building’s past as a grocery store and florist. The black-capped chickadee, the Massachusetts state bird, is dedicated to the memory of Marie Sheehan Kurash, 1943-2013, and Jamaica Plain resident from 1943-1969. 

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Special thanks to Kenji Nakayama, Sean O’Connor, Keith Zorn, and Josh Lafayette for their help in bringing the Kingsboro Park mural to life! 

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Tonight marks the opening of Pedigree, the curatorial brainchild of Liz Devlin of FLUX Boston. We’re really excited to show these gold leaf shadowboxes alongside some terrific art by some of our most talented fellow Boston artists. 

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 As a kind of tease to entice you to come to the opening tonight (Sept. 20th) and see these pieces in person, I thought I’d give a behind the scenes look at the creation of the shadowboxes, along with a description of Josh’s intent in creating them.

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"MARW (Death)" is three layered shadowbox done in gold and silver leaf, oil, and enamel on glass. The first two layers of glass are painted, gilded, and silver leafed on both the front and back sides. The third (and farthest) layer is a mirror. The mirror, along with the reflective surfaces of the gold and silver leaf create a kind of chaos of visual echoes when one "looks into the eye" (the small, eye-shaped opening of clear glass on the front piece). The piece in general plays into to ideas of reflection (both in the physical and figurative sense) as both accurate and deceptive.

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The outer layer of glass is decorative, painted with enamel, and designed to be reminiscent of carnivalesque, over-embellishments (think 19th century fun house). The word “MARW” is depicted on the bottom in its “normal” sequence and repeated on the top in reverse. Mraw is a Welsh word meaning death. Its inclusion is both a play on its mirror like spelling as well as its seemingly nonsensical meaning to non Welsh speakers. (Welsh has also been used in military cryptography because of its status as a “dying” language.) The esoteric nature of the language speaks to the seeming benignity and opacity of meaning when there is no translation. 

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Each image on the second layer of glass is painted on both the front and the back of the glass, making a reflection in the backing mirror when one looks into the “eye.” The images are painted on the backside of the glass with the image of their “opposite”. The beautiful, blindfolded, angelic woman weeping a gilded tear is represented on the back side of the glass as a whited out, demonic skeleton. The pair of crossed knives become a pair of quills in the reflection. 

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Only the word, MARW, “death,” appears unchanged in its reflection. Because of the multi-layered effect of reflection, all of the reflected images, if viewed at a certain angle, appear to repeat infinitely, speaking to the inexorability of mortality and penitent self-reflection. 

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The companion piece to “MARW (Death)” is titled “BYWYD (Life).” Bywyd is the Welsh word for life which also happens to contain letterforms that appear similar in their reflection. This piece, created in 2013 for the Pedigree show, uses gold leaf, oil, enamel, and abalone. It is a two layered shadowbox that explores similar themes as MARW (Death), including the deceptive nature of reflection and the similarities that are inherent in seemingly opposite entities.

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BYWYD (Life) uses similar design themes as MARW (Death), including the double image of the female and the reflective skull. The pig, as genetically similar to humans, represents the connection that’s implicit in all binaries. As with MARW (Death), this piece emphasizes the overt opulence of gold as a symbol of immortality in direct opposition to our inevitable fate. 

Some progress shots

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We hope to see you tonight at the opening reception for Pedigree in Newton! We’re also doing a gold leaf demo/talk at the New Art Center on October 10th from 7-9pm. Come one, come all!

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Entrance-way mural by Will Sears at SPACE Gallery, Portland, Maine

Last weekend we had the pleasure of attending the opening reception for Steady Work, a sign art show at SPACE Gallery, featuring the work of Will Sears, Patrick Corrigan, Jimmy “Spike” Birmingham, Kenji Nakayama, Carl Frisso Angell, and Josh Luke. The opening was a blast and the artwork is fantastic!! 

Awesome work by Patrick Corrigan

Pinstripes and beachy signs by Jimmy “Spike” Birmingham 

East wall, featuring work by Spike and the Best Dressed Dream Team—Josh, Kenji, and Frisso

Sign Painters lettering collage by Josh Luke

Frisso’s Reducer Can

More incredible work by Will Sears

On the Saturday after the opening, Josh conducted a sign painting demo at the gallery (which he pulled off beautifully considering how hungover we all were!). 

A well attended demo

Josh’s trusty assistant

Kenji demonstrating some killer pinstripes 

Thanks so much to Jenny McGee Dougherty, associate director of SPACE Gallery and extremely talented artist in her own right, for inviting us to be a part of this show! 

Next up: the much anticipated Pedigree show at New Art Center, curated by Liz Devlin of FLUX Boston. We attended the pre-opening reception this week and can now officially vouch: this show is awesome! It’s a really well curated collection of art by mostly Boston artists who consider the question of propriety and privilege through their art and craft. 

Join us in Newton on Friday, September 20th for the opening reception, and again on October 10th for a gilding demonstration and a brief history of gold leaf.