Out on the sun-punched plains of central Texas, sign painter Norma Jeanne Maloney has recently set up her Red Rider Studios at the end of Main Street in sleepy Taylor. For a few thousand bucks, Maloney rents her space, a 116-year-old mint green building resembling an old west saloon. While it’s only 35 miles outside of Austin’s hipster, artist enclave, it’s a world away. Transplants aren’t arriving in droves and driving up rents. Magazines aren’t featuring Taylor in “must visit” articles. And trendy agencies aren’t establishing satellite offices there.
While Taylor doesn’t have the hallmarks of a traditional design city power, Maloney has come to realize that Taylor is the perfect spot to pursue her art. In the process, she’s helping to dispel the myth that the only place for an artist to create is a loft in Brooklyn, a flat in London, or even a gallery in quickly-gentrifying Austin. In order to hand paint signs full-time and live comfortably, Maloney has hopscotched from San Francisco to Nashville before finally landing in the Texas countryside.
And yet, nothing about these moves is the result of Maloney giving up her dreams or lessening her standards. In fact, she is more successful than ever, as evidenced by being booked solid for the next four months. She has simply found a way to alleviate the concerns of many an artist — mostly the pressing financial ones — to fully focus on her craft. Now 53, she currently spends 11 hours a day at Red Rider making signs for the likes of BBQ pit masters, butcher shops, and tattoo parlors. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go home to her wife, she says, it’s just that she really loves painting signs. Reflecting on her 25-year career, Maloney discusses her own struggle with working for free to get a foot in the door, finding new clients with each move, taking a second job to support herself, and why an artist serious about their work should consider living anywhere to create.
What led you to becoming a sign painter?
I have been intrigued with typography since I was little and had a strange fascination with signs and album covers. I am an Army brat — my dad was in the military — so I grew up everywhere, including six years in Japan, and I would draw signs when other kids were out playing.
When I was 18, I lived in Kentucky, and I was re-lettering a storefront window for Singleton Upholstery with the wrong paint and the wrong brush. I was using a nylon brush and model paint, and I needed a lettering quill and one-shot lettering enamel. This gentleman came by on a bicycle and asked me if I was a sign painter. I said I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to be. He could see that I was struggling and he took the time to run back to his house to get me a brush and some paint, and he handed the new brush to me and said “try this.” It was night and day. It all made sense. I turned around to thank him and he was gone. He was a gift from God, is what I thought.
How did you turn your interest into a paying gig?
I started looking in the phone book for sign companies and got a lot of doors shut on me because there really wasn’t any hand-lettering going on in 1985 because the vinyl machine had come out. I found the Johnson Sign Company and they were still lettering stall card signs for thoroughbred sales by hand. I reached out and they hired me on the guise that I was going to hand-letter, but they ended up having me do a lot of vinyl, so I had to go rogue and sneak into the shop at 4 a.m. to practice hand-letting and prove myself. I would take the sign examples that the male painters had laying around, and I’d try to emulate that. Trial and lots of error.
In your late 20s you attended the College of California Arts and Crafts in San Francisco. What did you learn there?
The interesting thing about this design school: There was not a lot of teaching going on. I had good instructors, but they were working instructors so when they came to class it was almost as if, if you had a natural knack for it, you were elevated and praised and everyone else fell to the wayside. The student loans remind me all the time that I probably shouldn’t have gone at all. I didn’t really learn much about the craft there. It was all computers, and I kept moving myself towards doing things by hand. If I had to do it all over again, I would have researched trade schools, but I really did think in the beginning that I wanted to be a graphic designer and could sit in front of a computer all day.
You left San Francisco in 2001 because it was becoming unaffordable and you moved to Nashville. What was that like?
It was short-lived. There wasn’t a lot to paint, but I knew that the best way to do it was to go down to the honky tonks on lower Broadway where there were some hand-painted designs and try and redo the bad ones. I met Layla, the owner of Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, and I told her I would paint her sign for free. So I took three days for that job, and, while I was out on the street, I handed out business cards, which led me to painting every single honky tonk on lower Broadway. Then there wasn’t much left to paint.
Should someone work for free to get a foot in the door?
I really have a huge amount of disdain for people who say that an artist can hang their work in a coffee shop, or whatever the business is, in exchange for “exposure.” That is the biggest cop out for not paying people what they’re worth. In retrospect, when I look back on my career, I wish I would have drawn a harder line in the sand. I won’t work for free now, and I do not encourage anyone I know to do that. Giving your art away for free is a serious trap, because people will say, “You did it for them for free, why aren’t you doing that for me?” If you bank yourself as someone who works for less than nothing, you will never be able to charge what you’re worth.
In between Nashville and moving to Austin in the mid-2000s, you drove a commercial truck. Why?
I went through a really difficult break up, decided to leave Nashville, and moved in with my mother at the ripe age of 33. I always wanted to drive a truck, so I went to truck driving school, and became a truck driver. It gave me some time to reflect on my future. I hauled everything from Styrofoam to melons to meat across 48 states, and the experience gave me a broader artistic perspective. I got to visit a lot of states that I hadn’t been to, and that was inspiring. I didn’t have a TV in my cab, so I spent the nights drawing letter forms. It made me a better sign painter.
Were there other times in your career that you worked jobs outside of your wheelhouse to allow you to continue to make art?
When I moved to Austin, I had no clients. Starting from scratch was hard, and the economy was not so great in Austin 10 years ago. My first studio was out in the country, and, during the lean times, I painted houses to survive because I am handy with a brush and that kept me afloat. Then I moved my studio into the city and, almost immediately because of that exposure, I started getting some phone calls. My first real gig was with the Hotel Saint Cecilia, which is a Liz Lambert [a successful Austin businesswoman] venture. I got my name sent around by word of mouth after that. Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know.
How do you work?
Depending on the sign, it takes me anywhere from one to nine days to finish. Lettering a wall when it is 102 degrees requires tenacity. I start early and quit early — it’s not good to go out there and get heatstroke, which has happened to me a few times. I’ve only fallen off my ladder once when it collapsed underneath me. I was covered with red paint, but luckily I didn’t get seriously hurt.
You are booked for months with jobs. Have you ever considered speeding up your output by removing the hand-crafted element of the process and using a vinyl machine?
I would go back to driving a truck before I’d get a vinyl machine.
What is the difference between a good sign painting and a bad sign painting?
A lot of sign painters aren’t familiar with color theory, and I think it’s important to not paint directly out of the can. Colors have to be married with each other and, when I’m mixing colors, they have to have a little of the other in each of them. For example, if I’m painting a red sign with white lettering, I put a drop of red in the white to marry it, so it’s lovely and has an organic flow.
You’ve recently left Austin, where you have about 90 percent of your clients, and moved to the tiny town of Taylor 35 miles away. Why?
Austin is getting very expensive to be there, so I got a jump on it and started looking to move to a small town nearby. I liked the vibe in Taylor and got a space that is 2,300 sq. ft. with 25-feet high ceilings, with exposed brick and heat and air condition, which I didn’t have in Austin, for one-eighth of the price. It’s sad to see the musicians and the artists getting pushed out of Austin, but that is what comes with a thriving economy.
There is this ongoing tension between artists and affordability in cities and neighborhoods that they help invigorate. After moving around yourself, what would you tell a fellow artist who is feeling a similar pinch as you did?
If you are serious about what you do, you’ll live anywhere to create. Obviously, you want to show in galleries, but I have friends who live in Cleveland and they can easily make it to New York City to show in galleries. A lot of people sacrifice to create out of a place of pure desire. We live in a capitalistic society and when you grow up and tell someone you want to become an artist, they say, “That’s not realistic.” Well, why not?
You offer a paid apprenticeship for people who want to learn the art of sign painting. What makes an apprenticeship beneficial to a young artist?
Seeing it done. When you see someone who has been doing it for 25-plus years, you have someone there to guide you, and you learn. There really isn’t anything better. When someone comes to apprentice with me, I’d like them to make a two-year commitment and not work outside of Red Rider, because I think it takes that amount of time to go out and paint decent signs.
What is a typical workday like for you?
I get into the studio at 7 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m — sun up to sun down, like a farmer. I try to get all of the administrative work out of the way first so I can have a brush in my hand all day. I want to paint something every day. By the time it’s noon, I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, whereas when I come in at 9 a.m. it feels like the day gets away from me.
You’ve branded yourself as a sign painter. Is that how you see yourself as an artist?
I see myself as a sign painter / muralist. I also do a lot of musician portraits and show those at galleries. Sign painting and portraits are more similar than you might think. When you think about the original sign painters who would go out and do these elaborate billboards, they could do amazing typography and amazing illustrations. But if someone brings a clock in to me that needs to be painted, I will paint that clock. I do a lot of odd jobs to keep it fun.
Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.