PILSEN — For many, a sign hanging from a building may look like a square of wood and paint, but for the artists who create them, the experience can be sheer magic.
"You're kind of like a magician," said longtime Chicago sign painter Ches Perry. "You do something, and they can’t see what you did. I’m doing all these little things and shortcuts, and nobody can see that unless I tell them."
The underappreciated "magic" of hand-painted business signs is making a comeback of sorts in Chicago. While many businesses use machine-made vinyl signs on their storefronts, more shops recently have been enlisting the talents of veteran artists who use paint, a brush and good old human hands.
Some longtime sign painters say they are getting more requests from artists for lessons in the highly specialized craft.
While the signs are a business necessity, they are also being appreciated as an art form. The Ugly Stepsister Gallery will be open Friday night during 2nd Fridays Pilsen and feature an entire exhibit dedicated to Chicago sign painters.
Continuing until the end of the month, it features established painters like Perry and Chicagold Sign Company's Robert Frese, in addition to younger emerging artists like Stephen Monkemeier and Kelsey and Andrew McClellan.
The exhibit comes on the heels of a 2012 documentary, "Sign Painters," which followed two dozen sign painters across the U.S.
“It’s coming back right now because people want to stand out, they want their business to have something different,” Andrew McClellan said of the sign-painting trade.
McClellan and his wife — who most recently painted the sign featuring a pink frog outside Leaders and Co. Apothecary in Pilsen — have also done sign work for Goddess and the Grocer, and Grass Fed in Bucktown, and Logan Square’s Table, Donkey and Stick.
In 2011, the husband-and-wife team moved to Chicago from their hometown in Denver to complete a collaborative painting program at the School of the Art Institute.
Drawn to sign painting as a way of making both art and money, the McClellans reached out to longtime Chicago sign painter Stephen Reynolds for classes on using the long-brushed quill involved in the trade.
Reynolds — who's done signage for the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center, and more recently, the hand-painted gold lettering outside Dusek’s Beer and Board in Pilsen — said he's seen an uptick in younger artists asking for lessons in the last year.
“It’s difficult for young people to learn this skill,” Reynolds, 63, said. “It’s practicing painting hundreds of strokes until eventually the body learns what it feels like when the paint is consistent, when there’s a balance with the paint."
Much of the work still involves delicately dragging a long paintbrush along a surface. For the McClellan's, happening upon an "Electro-Pounce Senior" — a machine from 1961 that uses electricity to create little perforations that otherwise must be done by hand — was like striking gold.
“It makes life so much easier,” said Kelsey McClellan.
It can also be treacherous.
“It’s very dangerous. It’s very easy to shock the hell out of yourself,” Andrew McClellan, of Heart and Bone Signs in Pilsen, said. “All the old sign guys say they used to turn it up all the way and light their cigarettes with it.”
After the vinyl plotter came on the scene in the 1970s, signs were able to be mass-produced without the need for artists. For a while, Chicago was left with just a handful of sign painters like Perry, Reynolds, and Frese.
But in the last decade, an appreciation for the art form has developed.
“It’s almost like, 10 years ago, no one knew signs were hand-painted,” said Perry, who’s done signs for doughnut shop Glazed and Infused and the soon-to-reopen Lakeview Irish pub Johnny O’Hagen’s. “In the past five or six years, some younger people have found out about it … and so it’s kind of coming back from that perspective.”
Glazed and Infused general manager James Gray said the hand-painted look fit with the doughnut shop's spirit: "A small group of people who believe in supporting local artistry."
"It’s not perfect, you can tell somebody was really behind that, not just a computer. It gives it more life," Gray said.
For Stephen Reynolds, a flawed sign painted by human hands trumps perfection any day.
“It’s real art. It’s something that actual contains the DNA of the sign painter,” Reynolds said. “It actually creates a relationship with the viewer. This is something somebody worked on, this was done by a human being.
Ugly Stepsister Gallery, 1750 S. Union Ave., is open from 6-11 p.m. Friday night as part of 2nd Fridays.