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It’s a Sign, Part I

It’s a Sign is a two-part series exploring sign-making pioneers of Central and West Texas

As a country dedicated – not just practically but through its art, literature, and film – to the road, America is defined by its signs.

Whether a foreign object glimpsed from the highway at 100 miles/hour or a familiar landmark seen every day during the journey to and from, signs are a marker of place that take on a different meaning for each person that looks upon them.

In Austin, they are an integral part of the city’s culture of welcome, yelling loudly and clearly, inviting people in, and telegraphing a reassuring expectation of what they’ll find inside.

As the city rapidly swells, so do the schedules of its sign makers. Ever-committed to preserving its traditional character, the region is home to pioneers of the trade versed in hand lettering and the restoration of neon icons refusing to embrace the vinyl advertising awnings and digital printouts of modern convenience.

Signwriters Norma Jeanne Maloney and Joe Swec are committed to the region for the long-term.

Norma Jeanne’s Red Rider studio, from which she creates signs for business like Stubbs BBQ and Salt + Time, has become a quasi-open house where the next generation goes to learn.

“A lot of people call me or email me and say they want to get into sign painting,” says Norma Jeanne.

“So, if they’re local I say come on by. I have an open studio policy, I like to help out the youngsters, I have an apprenticeship program where I pay you to learn, and I answer every email.”

Listen to Norma Jeanne’s Story courtesy of the LINE DC’s Full Service Radio

For Joe, Austin is the place where he found his craft. Arriving in the city as a frustrated former structural engineer, he experimented with a variety of creative careers before finding a natural aptitude and love for hand-painting signs.

Joe’s discovery coincided with Austin’s rising fortunes, and with his work covering first-wave Downtown revitalization venues like Easy Tiger, he’s now a permanent part of the local fabric.

“It was lucky that sign painting had a resurgence right then,” says Joe, “…and it was lucky that it was right at the beginning of Austin growing.”

Austin may transform – as it always has – but its commitment to signs of welcome remains steadfastly the same.

Read Joe’s full story in HERE Magazine found in guest rooms at LINE Austin. 

Photography by Michael Muller

by sanakeefer July 11, 2018