Master Sign Maker
by Julia Pearson
photo by Chris Hack
Visitors to Brown County and to the town of Nashville in particular, notice a subtle poetry or visual song as they drive through. Pedestrians, too, see a common style and character as they look down the streets. Much credit for this unique flavor goes to the master sign artist, Gary Anderson, who has spent multiple decades creating the signs along the roads and in front of businesses. A portfolio of his work can be had by simply looking about. Of the 43 years of his commercial sign-making, 29 years has been in his present studio which is a brief 15 minute drive to Nashville. He credits Brown County for giving him the flexibility and opportunity to express his own sense of design.
Gary grew up in Oolitic, Indiana, the first of three sons born to Dale and Edith Anderson. He graduated from Purdue with a degree in technical illustration. Jobs were few at that time, and Gary slid into the sign making trade because he needed work. With mentors and other influences, Gary also was self-educated. He often fully developed a style or technique, and would then move on to new and different ones.
Function is “always the name of the game” when creating signs for clients. The first priority of a good, functional sign is to get noticed, to “get people through the door.” He also says that the sign must be appropriate, and one that both sign artist and the client are proud of. It should also enrich the public environment by being something interesting for people to look at. Most codes are passed because of signs that are poorly created.
A well-made and effective sign is the best use of advertising dollars. Decisions regarding the elements of good design are simple: 1. Will it have a pictorial or graphic? 2. What style of type will be used? 3. What will be the shape of the sign? 4. Lastly to be considered—what color? Gary remarks that the individual personality of each of the shops in Brown County can be depicted on a sign with five words or less.
Gary’s signs brought Kin Hubbard’s characters—Abe Martin and neighbors—to the public thoroughfare. Entering Nashville, people are greeted by a welcome sign with Old Abe sitting on a barbed wire fence. Using Hubbard’s black and white cartoons to get started, Gary created the colorful, life-size and to scale figures of Abe and “friends” that people the sidewalks throughout Nashville.
Others traveling through Brown County have noticed Gary’s work. An architect and developer from Minnesota contacted him about producing signage for a miniature golf course at the Mall of the America. These pieces were built in Gary’s studio and delivered to Minnesota. Another significant client that was introduced to Gary’s work in Brown County was the town of Rising Sun, Indiana. The addition of a casino on the Ohio River gave this municipality the opportunity to renew its image. Gary designed and built a “Welcome to Rising Sun” sign that measured 20 feet long. It was carved, sand-blasted, and had an event board with changeable type. As his practice, Gary built scale miniature models of these pieces.
After receiving several design awards, in the mid-70s he was invited to attend a meeting of the “Letterheads” in Oklahoma. The Letterheads is a group of sign makers and decorative artists dedicated to passing down traditional sign making skills, such as lettering, striping, carving, gold leafing, and often glass art. In 1998, he spearheaded a national convention of the Letterheads in Bloomington.
He has taught workshops and classes in the United States, Canada, England, and Greece. He has also written three books on the creative aspects of sign design. He has had numerous articles published in the journals on design, which he says is “the heart, mind, and personality” of the trade.
With his artistic sense stretching in all directions, Gary is also an active “Walldog.” The Walldogs group was born when a group of billboard painters met in 1995 with the intention of producing large public murals. Gary created 25 murals in the United States and five in Canada. One of his murals can be seen on the brick wall of the Farmer House Museum in Bloomington. In the coming seasons, he will be working on a 12’ x 24’ mural in Shipshewana depicting its Amish heritage, and later one in French Lick. He has served as the project leader for the Walldogs on twelve murals, which can be very demanding. Room and board, plus materials are provided for the group of painters producing the mural.
Gary shares his thanks for the work the Brown County community gave him. His wife, Linda, kept the financial end of the business. Gary’s admiration for Linda is evident as he says that he would have been bankrupt if she had not been handling the books. “She was the cheerleader and a great supporter.” At various times, their sons, Taylor and Zach, had a hand working in the business. With five grandchildren now in the family, grandparenting is a delight for the Andersons.
Having recently retired, Gary is looking forward to stretching his creative muscles—writing, sculpting, mural painting—always teaching and always learning. He thanks Brown County for all the opportunities that have come his way.