It’s just before the start of an evening workshop after a long day at the Mystic Blue Sign Shop. Still, there’s much to do. Eve Rutledge circles around a classroom that itself is smaller than a billboard. There’s nine high stools or so clustered in between a gallery of hand-painted tin, wood, and glass. Eve chats airily with some early birds while placing brushes of various shapes and eras in plain view of the handiwork each one can create. Each inked table receives a similarly splotched desk easel. She made those in the shop, another testament to the variety of skills required by the sign painter in the computer age.
Earlier that day she might have been sawing wood, or scaling a ladder, or meeting a customer. “He comes in wanting white lettering on a black background,” she reminisces about a typical interaction with a client. He doesn’t realize that the sign won’t work, won’t communicate, as drivers whiz by it on the highway. She draws up the inverse of his vision pro bono: black Helvetica on white. She is as persuasive as her sample but less overt, more like a calligraphy in a complementary color. After all this is her bread and butter in the sign store business.
The boom and bust cycle of sign painting as an art is evident in the walls of the workshop. There are mass produced posters of swirly Art Nouveau ladies alongside original exemplars of the gold-leaf numbers that once located each shotgun cottage in the neighborhood. Tourists can find a museum tour here, while locals can recall where they saw that sign at. Eve can tell them and verify the facts, but she can also listen quietly as the scene draws others into a community of enthusiasts over the corner store announcing po-boys or yakamein. These faded facades were often the only remnants of the trade left when Eve came to New Orleans in 1995.
The outlines of past print is a palimpsest in the jumble of fashionable new chalkboard stands and window splash signs marking Magazine Street as the commercial row. Eve smiles about repeat customers, something she couldn’t have foreseen in the shop’s leaner days. And now there is gaggle of female sign painters who have learned how to cut straight lines under Eve’s mentorship. Hip twenty-somethings, they sit around Eve at a pot luck dinner like groupies seeking advice and camaraderie in this all but invisible labor. No one is getting rich. Still, everyone is making a living now. It’s a real day job. The street is booming with boutiques and juice bars. Eve witnessed the dot com explosion in San Francisco before coming here. The new diversity of sign makers and their hybrid styles will hopefully help them weather the next fad and its fading.
Until then, Eve has a class to assemble and many signs to paint before she sleeps.