Standing in his tiny, tidy studio in an industrial area in south Atlanta, Sturdivant’s green eyes lit up behind his black-rimmed spectacles as he reminisced about cool looking stock cars. But, admiring lettering and creating lettering that others admire are two different things. It would take years to learn the craft — and many mentors along the way.
There was Mrs. Voss, his art teacher at North Cobb High School. “She was adamant about letting students find our artistic talent,” said Sturdivant, who was in the class of 2003.
Chris Sturdivant prepares to create another hand painted sign in his is Atlanta studio. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
There was Josh, his drawing teacher at Georgia State University, who also had a gig as a coroner sketcher, drawing cadavers for medical books. Although Sturdivant never learned Josh’s last name, he considers him his most influential teacher. It was Josh who noticed that Sturdivant’s drawings always kept to eye level, and that they often included signs. It was Josh who asked his pupil whether he’d ever considered becoming a sign painter.
“What’s a sign painter?” replied the young college student. Josh handed him a book, “How to Paint Signs and Sho’ Cards” by E.C. Matthews, originally published in 1920.
Sturdivant since has amassed a collection of more than 300 books about painting signs. He also collects signs; the oldest one dates to the late 1800s. “I love old stuff,” he said, calling the signs sources of inspiration as well as reference.
Ronnie “Big R” Edwards of Canton remains another inspiration. During their chance meeting at an antique store a few years ago, Sturdivant learned that Big R was the one who painted all the stock cars that mesmerized Sturdivant as a youth.
“I told him I wanted to be a sign painter,” Sturdivant recalled. “He said, ‘Why? Sign painting is good for one thing: teaching you how to cuss.’” (A fair enough retort when you consider that Edwards primed and prettied the junk vehicles each week, only to see them end up in his front yard after race day, needing brand new brush treatment.)
Nevertheless, Big R took Sturdivant under his wing. The two remained friends until the mentor passed away last year.
As Sturdivant was getting his feet wet with sign painting, he earned his income as a restaurant worker, mainly behind the stick. It was during a stint at Victory Sandwich Bar that he met Kent Combs of Duluth. You might know Combs’ work: He’s the one who lettered the ping-pong rules at the Victory game room in Decatur. Combs is a second-generation sign painter and, compared with Big R’s “fast and loose with the brush” process, he is more structured, and of the mindset that improving one’s craft as a letterman requires daily practice.
These days, the roles have reversed. Combs now helps Sturdivant on job sites a few days a week. Sturdivant never has bought any advertising for his business, the Debonair Signman, but he doesn’t lack for work. And, he applies Combs’ methodical approach to his own schedule: in the studio one full day a week and three to four evenings, at job sites four to five days a week, Sundays off.
Chris Sturdivant creates another hand-painted sign in his Atlanta studio. The Kennesaw artist provides signs for many Atlanta restaurants. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
The college kid who once asked, “What’s a sign painter?” now sounds like a confidant brushman, as he talks about gold leaf lettering; explains the difference between surface gilding (think: the gold painting on a fire truck) and brilliant gilding (usually done on glass, such as the lettering on the window that he brought to life at Pinewood); and why business owners ought to listen to a sign painter rather than a designer.
“A sign maker has far more experience about what is going to look good as a sign on the exterior of your building than any designer,” he said.
Sturdivant’s brushstrokes are visible on every floor of the newly remodeled Hotel Clermont. His most extensive job to date, Sturdivant had a literal hand in the project since he was brought on last winter.
While he excitedly talked shop about that project, pretty much everything about the world of letters gets Sturdivant in a chatty state.
Did you know that there’s a documentary called “Sign Painters”? Released in 2013, it celebrates the hand-painted sign industry. Sturdivant’s criticism: The producers left out major contributors in the field.
Did you know that there is exactly one school in the country where you can study sign painting? Los Angeles Trade Tech College.
Did you know that there is a group of sign painters and decorative artists who meet up to exchange sign-making skills? They are called the Letterheads. A few years ago, Sturdivant attended his first Letterheads conference in Cincinnati. It was thanks to his sign clients, who started a GoFundMe page to pay for his travel and lodging expenses. You’d think he’d scored tickets to a major sporting event: “It was one of the first international ones in a long time!” “It was amazing!” “There were 450 sign painters from all over the world! “It was the first time there was an equal number of young and old people!” “Half the room had never gone to Letterheads!”
But that experience pales in comparison with his Letterheads trip to London last year. It saw him teaching a workshop and spending six weeks in the city, tackling jobs for fellow sign painters.
Sturdivant works with a sketch that serves as a blueprint for a new sign. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
He ticked off names in the hand-painter field like a baseball fanatic who can spout batting or pitching stats of all the greats. There’s Nick Barber in Ventura County, California; Gary Martin of Austin, Texas; Mike Meyer up in Minnesota.
When asked about his own style, Sturdivant replied frankly, “No one calls their style anything.” He expanded with a bit of sign painting theory: “A sign is meant to be read, essentially to be part of the landscape. It’s not supposed to be artistic expression. The only thing that gives someone style is their script and their casual.”
For sign guys, “script” and “casual” refer to types of lettering that primarily are applied on throwaway words on a sign. Prepositions “and” or “with,” and definite articles such as “the” are considered unnecessary words that might get treated with script or casual lettering.
But, it would incorrect to say that Sturdivant doesn’t have a style. His calling card stands right before our eyes: his dress. Rare is the occasion that he’s not wearing a bow tie. He almost always dons a collared shirt and a clean pair of trousers or jeans under his apron. The English flat cap atop his coifed hair is something he picked up during that trip to London. “It has definitely become part of the ensemble,” he said, while making quick work of a sign for Ford Fry’s Superica location in Houston: OCCUPANCY PATIO 68.
“It has made me stand out,” summed up the Debonair Signman.
So does the license plate on his Toyota pick-up truck: SGNPNTR.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Chris Sturdivant painted the signage at the Mercury at Ponce City Market. The signage for that restaurant was designed and painted by William Mitchell.
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