There was a time when every sign was handmade. Whether the letters were shaped by brushes dipped in jars of paint, carefully bent neon tubes, or from inked wooden blocks, the sign was created by someone’s hand. Yet as machines became better at reproducing type, your local hamburger place no longer had a painted sign with a cartoon burger, but a fade-resistant banner strung over the door. (That’s if you even still have a local hamburger place). Here in Mississippi we still have the hallmarks of a handcrafted past. Sometimes the sign is little more than an echo of the past, peeling letters on a faded concrete block wall—a car wash over a beauty salon over a hardware store, all of which no one remembers. Then you will round a corner and see fresh black paint, asking you to “Try Our Chitterlins,” or a smiling cartoon catfish, or an elegant silhouette next to a barber pole.
People are still putting brush to board in Mississippi, and making beautiful art. The art is sometimes used to sell tamales or talk about religion, and a whole lot of times to remind you that there is NO LOITERING. Perhaps since it is art meant to sell something, or yoked to the performance of a business, and certainly because it’s out in the sun and rain every day of the year, these signs disappear and appear at a dizzying pace. I have been using the medium of instant film now for well over a decade. Using decades old Polaroid cameras, and relying upon film that can be as ephemeral as the signs themselves, I have worked to preserve these flashes of art throughout Mississippi.
Even though some of these signs have disappeared, I hope these physical artifacts prolong the effort and care of people and times past. Through these images of hand painted signs I can bear witness to a unique part of Mississippi.
The following photo essay features a collection of 14 Polaroid images alongside field notes written by David McCarty.
The tough thing in loving these paintings is being a vegetarian for over twenty years. It turns out most people don’t paint vegetables, but you sure can find a lot of great ribs, hamburgers, and hot dogs.
This is not so much a sign as it is an actual painting.
If there’s a constant about these signs, it is that they may disappear—sometimes the whole building vanishes as well.
One of the things I love most about the Land Camera is its wide-angle photographs. It lets you see the whole scene, like in a movie.
Gloria's Kitchen - soul food and southern cooking - 2430 Bailey Avenue Jackson, MS 39213
Maude Schuyler Clay - photographer living and working in Greenwood, Mississippi. Clay has spent more than three decades documenting Mississippi and the lives of Mississippians. Follow here: The New Yorker, Facebook, and Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia.