Inside Track: McLemore’s artistic skills make messages pop

In a world of computer-generated images, sign painting is a front-row seat to what an artist is still capable of creating.
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Randy McLemore’s hand-painted signs add a certain flair to today’s cluster of neon and
LED messages. Courtesy Randy McLemore

Most artists’ handiwork is displayed in art galleries or at private viewings. Randy McLemore’s craftsmanship can be viewed along highways, sidewalks, storefront windows, interior signs and more.

Four years ago, McLemore launched his Grand Rapids-based Flourish! Sign Painter, putting his visual know-how to effective use thanks in part to the graphic design degree he earned from Western Michigan University in 1989, where he learned how to make visual communication clear, concise and aesthetically pleasing.

Following college, McLemore worked stints in computer graphics for a number of eclectic nonprofit and for-profit organizations including Grand Rapids First Church in Wyoming; Barfuss Creative Services; Grand Rapids Community College; and Flashes of Allegan. He ultimately concluded working in advertising wasn’t for him.

“I found out I don’t want to try to manipulate people, thinking about something that may not be necessary for them,” McLemore said.

McLemore took a 21-year detour from visual communication, working as a crew leader for All Gutter Systems; conductor and then engineer for CSX Railroad; owning and operating his own gutter business; then selling Little Giant Ladders, barbecue grills, cutlery and roofing products.

Working those varied jobs provided McLemore with additional skillsets in carpentry, mechanical drawing and sales acumen that he uses for his Flourish! business.

“Those jobs have given me the ability to work with customers, to show them what is meaningful and what’s not meaningful in a sign,” McLemore said. “Typography, words and spacing are important to me.”

RANDY MCLEMORE
Organization:
Flourish! Sign Painter
Position: Owner-operator, sign painter
Age: 60
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife Colleen, six adult children, two grandchildren
Business/Community Involvement: 12-string acoustic guitarist for traditional Irish folk band
Biggest Career Break: “I was contracted to do mural in Hudsonville and from that job, the chief architect contacted me for the Ada redevelopment to do a ghost sign. It gave me more visibility and prestige for what I’m doing today.”

Hitting the pavement to introduce himself to potential clients is his primary method of finding work, although his Instagram handle, @flourish_sign_painter, also generates work.

Amid the glow of neon and LED signs that dot a city’s landscape, McLemore has discovered there’s still elbowroom for a sign painter.

McLemore takes weather-beaten signage on walls, awnings, billboards and the like and, using a brush, paint, handmade patterns and other equipment, restores or creates custom signs for his clients. When he’s done, the business signs pop and thus draw attention. Some signs are intentionally temporary, such as chalkboard A-frame signs that promote a limited-time product or service.

Typically, images and lettering are painted by hand, requiring several kinds of brushes and specific colors to customize each sign according to specifications.

In a world of computer-generated images, sign painting is a front-row seat to what an artist is still capable of creating.

“You can actually see my brush strokes with my work,” McLemore said.

Then there’s the gold-leaf lettering he does for doors and windows that involves using extremely thin sheets of gold that’s used for gilding, but it also can include using copper, silver and aluminum.

Usually, a business that applies gold leafing signifies a higher standard: a jewelry store, a law office or a doctor’s office, some of the higher-end professionals because it has that prestige associated with it,” McLemore said.

No two signs are alike, a diversity McLemore relishes, but he keeps in mind a good business sign shares common goals amid a clog of signs attempting to draw the same passersby’s attention.

“No sign job is exactly the same, I found out,” McLemore said. “There’s no template. Every business is different. But the principle needs to be the same: good design. It needs to be legible and clear, and it needs to communicate.”

Some signs need a major facelift.

A large-scale project McLemore completed is a once-weather-beaten billboard on the corner of West Chestnut and Blue Star Highway in the Saugatuck-Douglas area that for over 30 years promoted Star of Saugatuck paddle wheel boat pleasure cruises.

The board needed a long-overdue facelift. Lichen and moss had invaded the signboard’s face, which was removed, and new 6-by-4-foot wood braces were installed to support it to its proper 90-degree perpendicular position. It was then repainted with oil-based paints and lettering enamels. The layout changed somewhat as the owners wanted to omit some information and add some new. But the classic three-quarters view of the paddle wheel boat with its unmistakable stern wheel remain as the prominent feature of the sign. 

“The most challenging part was, at first, making sure the thing didn’t fall over when I began to straighten it up because the old posts were pretty much rotted through, and then the painting of the paddle wheel,” McLemore said. “I wanted to get that right with the proper perspective and correct positioning. There were so many crisscrossing lines and circles overlapping one another that I almost went cross-eyed trying to paint it.”

McLemore recently refabricated Kutsche’s Hardware’s iconic key lock sign on Leonard Street NW. McLemore discovered Kutsche’s sign needed more than a new paint job. After getting the sign down to bare metal, McLemore discovered the lower portion of the metal sign was repaired with fiberglass. McLemore replaced that material with galvanized sheet metal, thus refabricating that portion of the sign and restoring it to its original condition.

I had to refabricate the part that was rusted out and had to do some traditional metal work, tin smithing where my previous gutter business came in where I knew how to prepare the metal, knew how to solder it. I knew how to cut it and make the tabs fold under,” McLemore said. “It needed a drainage area, so I had to make sure it was open and accessible and still looked aesthetically correct and functional.”

McLemore keeps an eye on sign restoration trends, including ghost signage — whereby it intentionally looks weather-faded. Such a sign took center-stage for the $13 million redevelopment at the 21-acre downtown area in Ada Village where the retail stores have vintage facades. McLemore employed a dry brush technique that involves painting onto the brick wall but not saturating the area of the sign with paint, intentionally creating an old and weathered look as if it had been there for many years.

The name of his company, Flourish! Sign Painter, germinated from a Psalm in the Old Testament that affirms those planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish. That passage sparked his imagination and formulated a business model.

As I contemplated my next career path, I wanted to go back to my roots, so I took that word (flourish) and was thinking about what I was going to call this new entity and there’s the flourish that’s with the graphic element and penmanship and a dance or movement element and a part of speech,” McLemore said. “It has a dual meaning that would also speak to my business and also speak to your business. If you hire my company, you will flourish.”

A major influence in McLemore’s life is his grandfather, Martin Hilbrands.

He worked hard, and he did what he had to do to take care of his family,” McLemore said. “He stuck to it. He was creative, he was an idea guy.”

On his bucket list is to travel to Europe some day, specifically the British Isles, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as the Maritime Provinces in eastern Canada where he has ancestral ties.

“It’s where my grandma’s side came from and settled in the 1700s in the New Brunswick area and then moved to Toronto and then immigrated to Michigan,” McLemore said.

McLemore’s first job was when at 14 he worked the summer months as a carhop for Cook’s Hot Dog stand, where he learned the power of saving money for the merchandise he wanted to purchase as well as the need to stand up for himself.

“It was an uncommon job for a male,” McLemore said. “I learned how to keep on eye on a fellow employee who was stealing tips from my tray. I learned to save money because I wanted to buy a pair of Adidas shoes and a pair of Levi’s at Rogers Plaza at The Levi’s Loft. That’s where the cool kids went.”

With a growing list of satisfied customers and a flow of new work in the pipeline, McLemore said he’s at a point in his life where he can keep the wolf from the door and gratify his creative soul.

“If I can convey an idea crisply, cleanly, aesthetically pleasing, well laid out with as little frills as possible, I like that,” McLemore said. “A business with no sign is a sign of no business.”

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