Sunday, May 19, 2019

A sign of the times (long gone)

Imagine, for a moment, going to work one morning, like you usually do.

Except, this time, you're working in front of a curious audience. People come and go, stop, watch every move you make, occasionally offer suggestions – or criticism – and your only viable response is to smile and say "Thank you."

That's pretty much how Beth Stewart is working these days.

Except that she's outdoors. About 30 feet off the ground on a scissors lift. Painting new life into the H. Lee Waters ghost sign on the side of the Black Dog Emporium building on the corner of West Second Avenue and Main Street.

Beth Stewart likes the way her ghost ad restoration project is progressing
 You might be familiar with Stewart's work. She's the one who hand-painted the eye-catching sign (an original design by Margaret Sink) on the back of Conrad & Hinkle's grocery store to celebrate that business' 100th anniversary.

But this is different. She's working on a sign that might be close to 100 years old, badly weathered and hopelessly faded – an apparition of its former self. She's not creating. She's restoring.

She's using masonry paint that should help sustain the life and vibrancy of the ad for decades to come.

Stewart, who was retained by the Lexington Appearance Commission for the job, is essentially working with nothing more than the ad already painted on the brick wall. Interestingly enough, locally famous photographer H. Lee Waters, who documented nearly everything about Lexington, Davidson County and surrounding areas with his photography and film making in the last century, apparently never took pictures of his own studio. As far as anybody knows, no pictures exist of his ad.

So how does Stewart know what colors to use?

"The city did the best research they could," said Stewart, taking a short break from the 90-degree sauna that this Spring has become. "It's going to have a white background with black lettering. I hope to have it finished by Friday (May 24).

Makes sense. If any photos did exist of the sign, they'd probably be in black and white anyway.

Almost comically, one of the few criticisms she's heard is that the letters "aren't straight."

You get the feeling that H. Lee Waters himself would love this.*
"I try to tell them that it's actually Mr. Waters' signature," said Stewart, who is the owner of her own decorative finishing business, Painted Magic by Beth. "It's how he signed his name. He started off using big letters that tapered off and curved upward."

But mostly, Stewart is hearing high praise for her work.

"Kim Watson owns the building and she's really excited about it," said Stewart, who, as a little girl, went to Sheets Memorial Baptist Church, the same church as Waters did. "And so am I. To me, because I knew Mr. Waters, this is sentimental and personal."

Stewart is also in contact with Mary Spaulding, a daughter of H. Lee Waters who lives outside of Davidson County.

"She's been reaching out to me," said Stewart, noting that even Spaulding could not find photographic evidence of the ad. "She said she's excited to get this project going."

This is the first ghost sign that Stewart has attempted. Although she's not a trained artist, she's self-taught and experienced in faux finishes, signage, pet portraits, custom furniture and custom cabinets.

It's a profession that mostly keeps her grounded.

Here is her Website:

*Photo by Beth Johnson Stewart

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