Sign painter exhibit shows off women’s handiwork

By Miranda Manier

“The Pre-Vinylette Society,” a showcase of work by female sign painters who design letter signs for businesses, events and services, opened Sept. 8.

The exhibit was curated by sign painters Meredith Kasabian and Shelby Rodeffer and will feature more than 60 female painters’ work from nine different countries. The gallery, 1932 S. Halsted St., is open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 23, or by appointment through Sept. 28, when there will be a closing reception at 6 p.m.

“The Pre-Vinylette Society’s” goal is to celebrate female talent in the male-dominated trade of sign painting, Kasabian said. In the heyday of sign painting, trade magazines would feature male sign painters, making them role models in the industry, she added. 

“Women weren’t given those kinds of opportunities,” Kasabian said. “So, as far as there being [one] woman sign painter who everybody knows because they were published, there’s very few.”

After sexual assault allegations against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump came to light in October 2016, Kasabian decided to open the all-female gallery she had been thinking about for years.

This is the third sign painting gallery Kasabian has curated with the Pre-Vinylite Society collective she and her husband co-founded in 2010. They created it after learning about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of 19th-century artists and writers who rebelled against the era’s academic and artistic conventions. Kasabian and her husband—who is also a sign painter—identified with the Brotherhood’s spirit of rebellion. 

“We felt as if we were being inundated with this poor quality vinyl banner signage,” Kasabian said. 

Their response was forming the Pre-Vinylite Society. The title of the collective pays homage to the Brotherhood that inspired Kasabian, while “The Pre-Vinylette Society” is a feminine tweak on the Pre-Vinylite name.

Apart from the field’s entry barriers, Rodeffer has also heard tales of the pressures that female sign painters experience. 

“You show up to do a job at a construction site with other contract workers who are almost always all male, and you’re unloading your gear and trying to put up a ladder, and if you mess up or drop something, you represent the capabilities of all women,” Rodeffer said, paraphrasing a story told by Sharon Davis, an artist from Omaha, Nebraska, who participated in a Q&A panel at the gallery Sept. 9. 

Kelsey Dalton, co-owner of Heart & Bone Signs in Chicago and a participant in the gallery, said many assume she cannot handle the work of sign painting. Dalton said she has overcome this by asserting her presence as a capable sign painter, adding that there is a positive aspect to working as a female sign painter. 

“I get a lot of attention from young girls who are shocked to see a woman on a ladder, Dalton said. 

In the week before “The Pre-Vinylette Society’s” opening, 20 of the gallery’s artists came to Chicago to help design the exhibit. 

“It was this beautiful beehive,” Rodeffer said. “Everybody found a role and … helped each other and lifted each other up.”

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