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Memories of a Signpainter

By Alycia Shedd
Presented at the 2004 Sigma Tau Delta National Conference in Daytona Beach, Florida

It’s a cool, gray Saturday morning in early April. I’m in my dorm room, thumbing through a Japanese graphic novel, one of several I bought yesterday afternoon. Then the unexpected happens: the phone rings. I never get phone calls during the morning hours. There are only two possible explanations for this call: either it’s some random student who dialed a wrong number, or it’s my parents calling to tell me that Grampy is dead.

This death was neither sudden nor unexpected. “Grampy,” my paternal grandfather, has been ill for a long time now. Last winter, he and Grammy had packed up the contents of their double-wide trailer home in Lake Tahoe and moved in with us—all so we could take care of Grampy if some emergency came up. Now, my aunt, uncle, and cousins are flying in from New Jersey and New Mexico, and my mom is coming to pick me up so I can join a family gathering that has suddenly become a wake. After hanging up the phone, I pick up the comic book again. I scan the same page over and over, the inked figures not really registering in my mind. Then, finally, I start to cry—not because the shock had finally sunk in, but because I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t feel anything that I can identify as “grief,” only a dull sadness, and a nagging feeling that I should be feeling worse than I do. This feeling persists as I watch the Palouse hills roll by on the way home; as I give Grammy a reassuring hug and let her cry on my shoulder for what seems like hours; as I read one of my old poems from high school over a candlelight dinner with the family.

After dinner, the family starts to discuss ways to honor my grandfather’s memory. Uncle Ben suggests regrouping in the Lake Tahoe area this summer for a memorial service. Cousin Nara wants to plant a tree in his honor. My dad proposes a road trip to scatter Grampy’s ashes in his old hometowns and vacation spots. I mostly keep silent, as I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about Grampy’s death. When he and Grammy lived in Tahoe, I only got to see him once a year, twice at most; much of my contact with him was through phone calls, postcards, and interesting odds and ends given at birthdays and Christmases. Is that why I’m not reacting to his passing—because his presence was never real to me in the first place? How callous of me. Could I have made more of an effort to connect with him all those years? Am I really that detached from the people I love?

As the elder generation tries to sort out the details of a memorial, I sit back and stir through my memories of Grampy, trying to create a mental picture of the man that’s real enough to be worthy of mourning.

Bob Shedd was an artist—not a fine artist, but a signpainter and cartoonist. Mainly, he did signs and advertisements for tourist attractions in the Lake Tahoe area. If you vacation in Tahoe, you’ll see Bob Shedd’s signs telling you to PREPARE TO UNLOAD on the ski lift, or that the steamboat makes daily tours of the lake. But Grampy also did less commercial things as well. Every year, he would send out a Christmas card with caricatures of the family and close friends, saying what everyone had done in the past year. When he was called overseas during World War II, he sent back letters to Grammy complete with lavish illustrations. He painted a set of signs advertising our big yard sale one summer, right down to a price list for the lemonade and cookies my brother and I were selling.

And he drew comics. Boy, did he ever draw comics. Everything from a monthly comic strip in a baseball magazine to a Buck Rogers adventure drawn on a roll of butcher paper, with panels three feet high. I remember how awestruck I was when Grampy showed me the latter item for the first time. Shortly thereafter, I clipped a piece of butcher paper to my kiddy easel and started working on a comic of my own. It was going to be a sci-fi epic on the scale of the Star Wars trilogy—in fact, it was Star Wars, with myself as Luke Skywalker and my family and friends replacing the other cast members. (This was in early elementary school, and I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of “plagiarism” yet.) I never did finish that comic. I never even got past designing the characters. But I kept drawing.

Whenever Grampy came to visit, he would look over my drawings and give me suggestions. He taught me how to draw nice, even text by hand; how to draw a properly proportioned face; and how to draw parallel lines when your straightedge is too short for the paper you’re using. Periodically he would offer me some of his old art supplies or “How To Draw Cartoons” books. I still have those books, their pages yellowed and crumbling, the cheery little ink drawings serving as reminders of a time before Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny and Astro Boy and the X-Men became a part of the cartoon world. I don’t call on those books much, but this was a large part of how Grampy learned to draw. He had only a smattering of formal art training; much of the knowledge he applied to his work was learned through reading books and taking apprenticeships with other signpainters. I, on the other hand, have opted to get a degree in Studio Art, spending four years drawing still-lifes, fiddling around in computer labs, and listening to lectures on the history of representational images. I realize that I’m very lucky to be in a situation where I can go to college, but I can’t help but wonder how it compares to the education my grandfather got from the School of Hard Knocks.

I remember the first and only time I ever gave Grampy advice. I must have been less than ten years old, because he was visiting us in the house in the woods that we moved out of in the summer of ‘92. Grampy was working on Harry Heavyhitter, the aforementioned baseball magazine comic. He was trying to figure out how to draw Harry being suddenly distracted by a ball game. “Show him with two faces pointing different directions, with streaky lines going between them,” I said. “Like this—” I pulled a Calvin and Hobbes book from the shelf and pointed out a strip that showed Calvin’s dad in a similar pose. Grampy liked the idea, and put it into his strip. It was a proud moment for me. For just an instant, we weren’t grandfather and granddaughter, or teacher and student; we were colleagues sharing ideas with one another.

However, throughout all the time we shared our artistic ideas, I never got to see his design studio—never, that is, until the summer of 2001, when the Shedd family gathered in Tahoe for what may well be the last time. After nearly thirty years, Grampy was retiring from the signpainting business. We were there to help him close up his shop and divvy up his old art supplies to friends and family.

Bob Shedd’s Signs and Designs consisted of a single narrow room in the back of a Chinese laundromat. It seemed even narrower thanks to the amount of stuff crammed into it: two drafting tables, a desk, a large wooden drying rack, shelves full of screws and brushes, and box after box of colored pencils, paints, and sundry other items. One by one, we pulled each box out into the pine-needle-strewn parking lot to decide whether it was going into our car or the dumpster. It seemed that every other item triggered a storytelling session, or an impromptu lesson in signpainting techniques. This was an old stencil used for silkscreening t-shirts. These were the preliminary sketches for an illustrated book on golfing. This was a tracing tool which used an electrical current to burn tiny holes through a piece of paper, which was then covered with chalk dust which would fall through the holes and leave traced lines on the surface beneath. And then there was The Drafting Table. This was no light aluminum-and-Formica affair: it was a behemoth made of solid hardwood and cast iron, a relic of an earlier age. According to Grampy, he had brought it back from Germany, where it had been used by the Allies to design bombs and airplanes during World War II. It was dusty and spattered with paint in a thousand colors, a testament to the years of work that had taken place on its surface. After talking it over with my parents and my cousin Nara (who is also an artist, though her tastes lean more towards fine art), we all agreed that I could take the drafting table home for my own use.

I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret as we started the long drive back to Lewiston. I’d known Grampy all my life, and had been in awe of his artistic skill for almost the same length of time. I had always wanted to be an artist, just like him—but I never really saw all the work he put into his profession until it was time to bring it to an end. There was so much more I could learn from him, if I only knew the right questions to ask. Next time we see each other, I promised myself, Grampy and I will sit down and have a nice long chat about his work and mine.

It never happened. Grampy’s condition took a turn for the worse that fall, and we made arrangements for the move to Lewiston over Christmas break. All his drawings and art supplies were packed away in storage along with the rest of his belongings. By the time the chaos of moving was over, I was back at school again, and only got to see him sporadically. By the end of January, he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor; by Valentine’s Day, he was in the hospital to have it removed; and on April 6, 2002, I got the call saying he was dead. Maybe I could have had that talk with him if I’d really made an effort, or maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Either way, the opportunity is gone.

June 2002. Grampy has been dead for a little more than two months. Grammy is still living with us, but looking for an apartment. Most of Grampy’s things are still in storage. I’m in my room, sitting at Grampy’s old drafting table, hard at work on my first professional design project—illustrating a collection of newspaper columns from the 1980s. The author of these columns is the late Don Thomas, a man born about ten years before Grampy was. In order to visually describe the life he put into words, I find myself calling on Grammy and Grampy’s old photo albums from the ’20s and ’30s. As I examine a newly finished drawing, an odd thought strikes me: This looks like Grampy’s work. It’s not the first time I’ve had this thought, but it seems particularly fitting here. The stories are nostalgic, so why shouldn’t the art style be nostalgic as well?

I check the clock—time to break for lunch. I take my drawings down to show to Grammy. I already know that she’ll love it; she’s always enthusiastic about everything I write or draw, no matter how awful I think it is. But as she looks over the loose Sharpie marker lines I’ve laid down, her reaction manages to surprise me. “Oh, Alycia,” she gushes, suddenly stepping over to hug me. “I see this and I almost feel like crying, because it looks so much like Grampy’s drawings.”

“It’s not finished yet,” I tell her. “I need to white-out this part and redraw it—”

Grammy’s laughter cuts me off before I can finish. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but that’s just exactly what Bob would say. He’d show me something and I would say ‘That’s wonderful!’ and he would say ‘It’s awful, I still need to do this and this and this…’ He was never satisfied with his work.

“Real artists never are,” I reply with a grin. It’s meant as a joke, but as I reflect on it I realize it’s true, at least for me. I’m never satisfied with the work I do, but at some point I have to stop and declare it finished. I’m sure I could have had more time with Grampy, learned more cartooning tricks—but in the end there would always be just a little more that could have been said, one more gesture that could have been offered. We had twenty years together, twenty years of scribbles, paint drips, Sharpie markers and T-squares, and his influence shows in every line I draw. This is how I honor his memory.


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