Feature from the Columbia Missourian • Writing & Photography by Joey Ukrop
COLUMBIA — John Crockett is one of the last craftsmen around who still honors the tradition of lettering signs by hand.
For two decades, the retired art teacher has painted signs for customers throughout Columbia.
His work can be found on the windows at Stuart Insurance Agency on North Tenth Street, the door to 63 Auto Sales, the car windows at Bob McCosh Chevrolet, the Mexican specialties on the front glass at Carlito's Cabo, and the sales pitches at Tiger Pawn.
Although the introduction of vinyl wraps and digital graphics have forced many painters to pack away their brushes, he isn't showing any signs of quitting.
"He's more active than many people much younger," said Almeta Moore Bonapart, the owner of Rooten Tooten Bar-B-Que.
Last year, Crockett painted the menu in a bold, Western-style typeface on the side of her roadside stand and trailer. She said she commissioned him because modern lettering is too graphical.
"He's really talented," she said.
The art of lettering
As the country became more industrialized in the latter half of the 19th century, manufacturers adopted marketing techniques to attract customers. A common strategy was painting promotional slogans and illustrations on every surface imaginable.
From high-rise buildings to storefront windowpanes, big cities and small towns across the country were subjected to this boom in commercialism. As the decades progressed, styles and techniques evolved to draw the viewers' attention.
Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, said showcards were once popular among sign painters in the 1920s and 1950s. These hand-lettered cardboard signs were often used to promote movies and came in a variety of styles.
Depending on the job, sign painters used oil-based paints or enamels, sometimes highlighting the script with gold and silver leafing on glass.
"It's revered among sign painters," Swormstedt said. "The 'Gold Man' would go out and letter the president of a company's office in a suit, white shirt and tie."
The golden age of hand-painted signage has come and gone, and this commercial art has nearly faded into obscurity. Only a handful of sign painters remain, making this art form quite rare.
The painter's path
Crockett, 79, grew up in Mississippi, where the schools were poor and segregation was an accepted practice.
"I was a victim of the school," he said. "The only thing I had going for me was my ability to draw and paint."
After leaving home, Crockett worked in sales, custodial and transportation industries. He then attended junior college before studying art history and English at Memphis State University.
Soon after, he blended his love for art into his career. For 17 years, he worked as a traveling art teacher in southeastern Missouri, migrating around the district. Crockett taught students of all ages, ranging from first grade to high school seniors. At this time, he made an effort to explore new mediums whenever possible.
"I'm a would-be cartoonist," Crockett said. "But I've learned to never be bored with anything."
In the 1980s, Crockett retired from teaching and moved to Texas to perfect hand lettering. There he was hired by a veteran sign painter who put the art into perspective for him.
"I worked under a master," Crockett said. "He'd take his lettering brush, and I saw how gently and reserved he approached making the stroke to make a letter.
Rather than telling him to be thankful for his steady hands, he told Crockett to thank God for his eyes.
Crockett took this to heart and began taking on painting jobs after relocating to Columbia with his family in 1993. Crockett and his wife have five children, along with her daughter, two of whom are artists.
In his early years in Columbia, his main clients were the car dealerships on the Business Loop.
Owners commissioned him to paint the production years on the windshields of used cars as well as advertising slogans on newer units. For the holidays, he painted winter panoramas on the dealership window panes.
"All of the dealerships had me painting for them when I showed up here," he said.
For 20 years, Crockett worked steadily with the dealerships. He said that recently, several have replaced his work with vinyl lettering to keep costs down.
"This town isn't good for sign work," he said. "I don't think any town is anymore because everyone has a computer."
Despite these setbacks, Crockett continues to paint for 63 Auto Sales, Bob McCosh Chevrolet, Premier Automotive and Stuart Insurance.
His jobs take anywhere from a few hours to several days, and he works year-round.
"I want to get out there," he said. "I don't care how hot or cold it is."
Crockett carries a tattered, paperback book of typefaces to help him make decisions about style and color during the planning stage of a project.
"I try to break up the text where it is going to look professional as possible," he said. "And I'll use a combination of lowercase and capital letters."
On bigger pieces, such as storefront windows, he creates a sketch on paper at the site or in his studio.
After marking measurements and alignments, Crockett takes out a white grease pencil, peels a strip off the top and begins to rough out a design. He said once everything is positioned, the remainder of the job is tedious. This includes mixing the paints and filling in the letters to create the final product.
Walking past his sign work on the windows of Stuart Insurance in North Village, Crockett is quick to point out that the lettering might not be as important as the message.
Instead of advertising for the agency, the message "Buddy Up To The Buddy Pack, Adopt A Buddy, Fight Student Hunger" is painted in bold yellow letters. .
Owner John Bell said Crockett has been painting messages on the windows at the corner of Tenth and Walnut streets since 2001.
"We had always known that he was a retired art teacher," he said. "Whenever we do things like this, we like to do them internally."
Bell said the sign has attracted passersby, often reminding them that there is someone less fortunate that needs their contribution.
"Whether it's art or a message, there are stores that prefer to do or not do it," he said. "Because of our location, we feel that this is the right thing to do."
With a speckled truck bed full of empty paint cans, brushes, rulers and thinners, Crockett has done more than simply paint letters on buildings and windows for the past two decades — he's created a web of people who appreciate him as both an artist and a human being.
"He's a man that encourages," Bonapart said. "It's not just about him, and he cares about others people. There's a lot of love in his drawing."