John Gardner Focuses on the Vibrant Art of Hand-Painted Signs in the Caribbean

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Man hand painting a sign in Dominican Republic

Human touch: Hand-painted signs have an unmistakable human touch that many modern, digital signs lack, says John Gardner, associate professor of Spanish at Rose-Hulman. Gardner studied hand-painted signs during several visits to the Dominican Republic.

When John Gardner was growing up in Iowa, hand-painted advertising signs were common in grocery stores and elsewhere around his hometown of Sioux City. However, over the next few decades, hand-painted signs slowly disappeared, replaced by digitally-produced vinyl signs.

As with most people, Gardner hadn't noticed the change. It didn't hit him until 2006 when he found himself surrounded by vibrant, colorful, hand-painted signs during a visit to South America. Later visits to the Caribbean confirmed this colorful form of advertising still dominates in less industrially-developed parts of the world.

During trips to the Dominican Republic with the Rose-Hulman chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Gardner, a professor of Spanish, photographed and studied the art and artists behind the colorful hand-painted advertising in two rural towns. He will present his photographs and his findings at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association national convention this spring in Seattle.

"I wanted to see where this beauty was coming from. I wanted to see into it more deeply," says Gardner.

As part of his study, Gardner interviewed several local sign painters and found all were self-taught and had a flair for the visual arts. Some were painstakingly meticulous, others painted virtually freehand. In either case, the resulting signs include slight differences in repeating letters and other subtle touches that give them a very human feel. Many signs even include misspellings reflective of the local accent, Gardner notes.

"The hand-painted signs, wherever you find them, have this tremendous vitality that digital signs lack," he says.

Gardner's goal in studying the hand-painted signs in the communities of Monte Plata and Sabana Grande, north of Santo Domingo, was simply to learn more about the art of sign painting in these small towns, he says. But his work also opened a window into the day-to-day world of ordinary people that history textbooks typically ignore.

"I met many bright people with a lot of drive," Gardner says. "But what they lacked were job opportunities and educational opportunities."

On the other hand, what they do not lack is a slower-paced world where advertising signs are still created one-at-a-time and are designed with pedestrians, not motorists, in mind.

"What is unmistakable in their work is the human touch," Gardner says.