Sean Beauchamp’s “Letters to the Universe” are writ large in the small Arts Space Obispo gallery.
“To use a brush well is a craft” involving math, discipline and study, he said, noting that signmaking becomes art by conceptualizing the ideas.
His exhibit curated by Mary La Porte, a Cal Poly graphic arts instructor, overflows with everything from his childhood drawings to a large neon sign made specifically for the show. La Porte has included some vintage signs from her own collections.
In Beauchamp’s experienced hands, the art of signmaking is still alive and well. An older friend once told him: “If you could hand letter you’d rule the planet.” That all changed in the late 1980s with the advent of computer-generated and digitally printed banners and other signs. “That was the death of the craft,” he said.
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Beauchamp has kept his business, Southpaw Sign Company, thriving since its inception in Portland in 1990, moving the operation to San Luis Obispo 14 years ago, in spite of his youthful intent to be unencumbered by such responsibilities. He maintained that his artist’s interest in signmaking made it impossible to have a business.
“It’s also the artist that makes you keep going when there’s not any money,” said the 40-year-old.
Although his projects include the welcome sign for Avila Beach, the San Luis Obispo Historical Society, and revamping the neons at the Carlton in Atascadero, traditionally it hasn’t been considered a noble pursuit.
“The sign trade of itself is pretty seedy,” said Beauchamp, especially referring to the so-called “snappers,” transients who trade a meal or a room for their work.
From a small town on the Oregon coast, at age 13 he landed his first signpainting gig in 1983 for a country store after a suggestion to “Get that Beauchamp kid; he draws.”
Early on he invested in brushes and a simple palette of paints, and studied alphabets and callig raphy. After migrating to Southern California, Beauchamp paid his dues working for sign sweatshops with video surveillance. But he also hooked up with a master of gold leaf near Los Angeles where he received invaluable training.
“I was willing to work for free,” he said.
Second only to neon, two-tone gold leaf lettering in a window is the most visible. Last year, he recreated the San Luis Obispo Fire Department’s gold-leaf lettering on its vintage 1923 truck.
During the years he’s seen plenty of changes in the industry, including a switch from highly toxic oil-based paints. Beauchamp’s materials vary from wood to metal to vinyl to high density foam, and he depends on precision machines, patterns and jigs for a lot of projects, although he continues to carve and handform.
Lettering and fonts require exact math, he said, and the problem with perfect lettering, is that a machine could do it. His handlettering, with its slight imperfections, keeps each sign unique.