Monday, April 20, 2009

Things I've Done--1

Chalk It Up to Joe
Even if I can't be drawing comics I can still get my jollies occasionally in my job as a signmaker for Trader Joe's, a specialty food chain. Each store has one or more sign guys (ours has two) whose job it is both to handwrite shelf price signs and to draw large (32x40 inch) chalk signs for displays of featured products.

We work on black foam board. Sometimes we use the foam board's natural surface; other times we paint over an old sign with black gesso and work on that. The drawings and often the lettering are done in pastel. Very elaborate or very small lettering we do with a variety of paint pens and "wet erase" markers.

The signs are always done too hastily, especially since we often get only an hour or two's notice to come up with a sign. However we get to create our own ideas, write our own copy, and conceive our own pictures. So every tenth sign or so comes out all right. I recently downloaded these from the store camera.Here's a sign left over from the Holiday season. TJ's Advent Calendars actually sell for 99c, but the sign was altered when we closed out the remaining stock (The white things are double-stick mounting tape). I had to futz with this one in Photoshop, as the corner with the drawing was overexposed. Suffice it to say that on the original the lights weren't so burnt out. TJ's Advent Calendars were made in Germany right up til this last Christmas. This year, though, they came from Canada. The 99 cent price point is held by making the chocolate figures smaller and thinner each year. This year you could almost shave with one.

As Trader Joe's has devolved from a funky regional chain into a national corporation, the Suits have become increasingly sensitive about offending customers. Not for humanitarian reasons, you understand, but to protect themselves from lawsuits--the boogey man of Corporate Law. Can you believe this was the only sign in the store that mentioned Christmas by name? We couldn't help it--Advent Calendars don't count down the days 'til "Holiday."

Everything else in the store had to refer to "Holiday Time" or "Season's Greetings" or something like that. Similarly, we can't specifically mention Hanukkah, Easter, Ramadan, Kwanzaa...thank [insert diety here] for Santa Claus! Whom we can't call "Saint Nicholas." Incredibly, there was a heated discussion at the regional level about whether we should feature St. Patrick's Day, as this might imply support for the Catholic Church. Luckily, in America everyone knows it isn't a religious holiday, it's an excuse to get drunk, so it was all leprechauns and lager. Lots of lager.

Still on the Holiday theme was this quickie for a wine called "Kono Baru." On the label was a story about South Seas pirates (Sandokan and Company?), so I was compelled to draw a Santa pirate. Compelled, because I jump at any chance to do a pirate or a mermaid. (By the way, the right side of the sign is missing because it was cut off for use on a sidestack display.)

The autumn-themed sign was a big hit with the customers, despite an attack of my old Over-Long-Arm syndrome. Wish I'd had more time to work on it.

The Valentine's Day cherub (yes, we can say Valentine's
Day) was banged out in record time, so it's surprising how well it turned out. This one was done on white foam board--a big mistake, because its slick surface didn't take anything well. I washed some white gesso over the areas where I'd be drawing, which helped. Why not do it on black board as usual? We ran out of black and hadn't time to run to the art store for more!

The last sign, the cornbread and pumpkin bread display, was one of those rare times when everything goes right. The subject matter is trite, and I had no more time than usual, but every stroke just seemed to hit the right spot. The color on the scarecrow came out especially nice, though it doesn't all show in the photo. I was proud of this one. Such pieces allow one to feel that there's still some hope.


Anonymous said...

My first job, nearly forty years ago, was a part-time after school gig working in a supermarket. I clearly remember they had a sign artist tucked away in a corner who turned out signs and price displays to order.
i'd assumed that centralisation and the use of computers had killed off such jobs (that certainly seems to be the case here in Scotland, where I live), so it's great to know that Trader Joe's still employs sign painters, I'm sure giving a distinct look to every branch.

David Simpson

Smurfswacker said...

The corporation decided to use in-store sign artists to lend a "home made" look to an increasingly homogenized retail chain. I, for one, am glad they did, because I'd been out of work five years before the gig came up!