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Letterheads may liven up Martian landscape

Sign painters convention may be a good time for town to brush up on its looks

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The little Butler County town of Mars doesn't know what's about to hit it. Maybe it's more prepared than most population-1,700 places would be, seeing as how its planetary name has long sustained a spacey shtick that includes a flying saucer statue on the town square.

Click drawing for larger image. (Ted Crow, Post-Gazette)

But this week, some real far-out aliens are descending on the place, and they plan to radically transmogrify it.

Landing Thursday and staying through Saturday is "Letterheads on Mars," the international convention of sign painters. More than 200 and as many as 400 "Letterheads," as they dub themselves, are flying in from as far away as Australia and Scotland and from all over North America.

Their plan is to actually paint the town red and many other colors, so that, by the time they leave, the hardware store, grocery store and library will glow with murals. They'll also unleash their "cozmic" rays on other structures, on people's vehicles, maybe even on a body or two.

Good citizens of Mars, brace yourselves.

For a good time.

"They have no clue," says Jill "Jillbeans" Welsh, the purplish-haired, leopard-print-loving sign artist who's hosting the gathering. "People call and say, 'I want to know about this leather head thing' ..."

Welsh, who runs Jill's Custom Signs on Route 8 in Middlesex, is one of these wackos, and she's been to these meets. She's seen the townsfolk of even tinier Mazeppa, Minn. -- well, charmed by these funky artists, and vice versa.

"There's nothing like it," she says. "It's the fellowship, the learning, the bonding that you do. The craziness. It's just the best time you'd ever want to have."

See, historically, sign painting was a closed craft -- one that wasn't easy to break into and whose practitioners didn't share their secrets.

That started to change in 1975, when seven sign artists got together in Denver and started swapping serious techniques along with not-so-serious stories. They called themselves the Letterheads, and their loose gatherings caught on with others who discovered how much fun it was to perpetuate and celebrate the craft.

Today, Letterheads do much more than just paint on signs and walls, because they include artists who make every kind of sign, from hand-carved wood ones to the high-tech ones that cover buses to low-end vinyl ones. Think of all the the different kinds of signs at a place like PNC Park. All those letters come from Letterheads.

The group is nothing but freewheeling -- there still are no officers, no bylaws and no dues. Their creative community spans the globe but lives in Letterville, or http://www.letterheads.com, the "on-line meet that never ends." The site, which is maintained by a couple in Ontario, has 7,500 registered users, just to give you a rough idea about numbers of these "Brothers of the Brush" and "Keepers of the Craft."

The 40-year-old Welsh is a mostly self-taught artist who started painting signs for a living in 1985. Her life was changed by the first meets she attended, and she became a Letterhead in 1994. She hosted her own small meet in 2000, but she hungered to host the international. At last year's in Waukesha, Wis., she broached the idea to the tribal elders, saying that she was on the Chamber of Commerce for an area named Mars, and they thought the possibilities sounded out of this world.

You can paint the town or watch others do it

Including all the workshops, seminars and meals, "Letterheads on Mars" costs each attendee $150. But much of the fun is free or cheap and open to the public, too, especially on Saturday, which hostess Jill Welsh describes as "a big crazy festival day."

Besides being able to watch the murals come together, people can view or even participate in a parade through the business district of Mars at 6:15 p.m. Saturday.

At 8 that night, for $5, you can attend a dance in the library parking lot featuring live music by The Jentz.

For a donation that will benefit the library, you can have your vehicle pinstriped. Or you can buy a 50/50 raffle ticket to benefit the Mars Volunteer Fire Co., which will cook up a spaghetti dinner from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday. Another raffle will benefit the Mars Area Redevelopment Committee.

Throughout the day Saturday, there'll be other local food and craft vendors, a classic car cruise, music including a bluegrass band, children's activities and more. Bid on signs at an artwork auction that starts at 11 a.m. Or have your photograph taken with the cut-out props Welsh created of a train and a space ship.

To register or for more information, call 724-586-6923.

By Bob Batz Jr.


She started last August as a mostly one-woman planning committee ("I'm ready for a lobotomy"). Now, though, she's enlisted the help of many in and around Mars, ranging from the Chamber and borough council to most of her 99 cousins.

This won't be the first international Letterheads meet in this region -- Bill Beck-ner hosted one in Canonsburg in 1992 and started a pride movement among professional pin-stripers known as Pinheads. But Welsh, the first woman to host an international, is hoping this one will leave a bigger mark on the map.

Certainly, Mars never will be the same.

Most of all three days, Letterheads organized under project leaders will unleash their creative energies on several local landmarks.

Pfeifer Hardware is to get a car-sized mural on one of the first walls you see as you drive in from state Route 228.

The Foodland is to get a much bigger mural, stretching 108 feet.

Toward the far end of the main drag, Grand Avenue, the Mars Area Public Library also is to get a big mural. The false facade of the Shaw Building is to get some pictorial decoration, too.

The old train station that the Mars Historical Society is restoring will be gilded, literally, with gold leaf applied to its wavy windows by the artist from Australia. A Lancaster artist will do an airbrush interior mural and a New York artist is making two hand-carved mahogany signs.

Other businesses will receive colorful "window splashes," and the town's Grand entrance is getting a classy new dimensional "Welcome to Mars Est. 1873" sign that was fabricated in Nebraska.

The Letterheads will do all this -- about $75,000 worth of work -- for nothing more than the "joy of the experience," using materials donated by sign-trade vendors.

And that's still just part of the art, as the Letterheads will commune in a cardboard-lined warehouse for "panel jams," which are sort of like orgies of making sign panels that they swap with each other.

As Welsh puts it, "The paint will be slinging and flinging."

The public is welcome to watch and participate. For instance, for a donation that will benefit the library, you can get your car pinstriped by the Pinheads. Their ranks are to include Missouri pinstriper to the stars Bob Bond, who has done auto art for Elvis and Cher.

Pretty wild for a town that might be more comfortable for another of Bond's clients: Andy Griffith.

"We're kind of Mayberry-esque," says Ed Pfeifer Jr., who runs the hardware store with his dad. He realizes this convention "is something that's completely different from the carnivals and festivals that we had in the past" and something that could seem "somewhat bizarre." Nonetheless, he's welcoming the Letterheads with not just his open brick wall, but also open arms.

"You have to go into it with an open mind and trust what they're doing and that they're professionals," says Pfeifer, who like other building owners doesn't even know what the "wall dogs," as wall painters are known as, are going to paint, because they keep complete creative control. But he's seen the quality of the work they do, and he's confident the murals will fit the century-old character of the buildings and the business district, which last year got revitalized with period light poles, brick sidewalks and park benches.

Jill Welsh, organizer of Letterheads on Mars, an international gathering of sign painters, stands in the "panel jam area," a cardboard-lined warehouse where the artists will paint together. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

He's also heard about how the Letterheads have painted some towns, such as Cornwall, Ont., into tourist attractions. Ten murals painted during a three-day wall dog meet in 1997 won an Illinois Art Council Governor's Award for the town of Belvidere, which has re-imaged itself as "The City of Murals." (One of those murals was painted by Pittsburgh's own Jeff Lang, who will be gussying up the Shaw Building.)

"The mystery that somewhat surrounds what the signs will look like is the hot topic of conversation, particularly among the business owners," Pfeifer says. He has an idea that his mural, overseen by Beckner, will be an old-fashioned sign advertising a fictional brand of paint. That's just fine with him. "The paint we carry now might not be the paint we carry in 20 years."

Welsh will say the Foodland mural, overseen by Bill Berberich of the Allegheny County Sign Shop, is to incorporate local historic vignettes, including the late but lingering local sign painter named Benny Pershing.

"In a 20-mile radius, you can still find his signs today," she says reverently.

The library's mural will depict two children reading a book -- a thank you for letting the Letterheads put up in the parking lot the tent where they will hold most of their workshops and seminars.

Topics range from "Airbrushing" (aficionados of which are "Airheads") to "Motorcycle Graphics," taught by experts in each specialty. The library tent also is where the Letterheads will gather Thursday to recite the secret Letterhead Creed and hold their "Circle of Wisdom."

"We're going to have some crazy stuff," Welsh says, mentioning the one-man band, the swinging nuns, the traditional ice cream-eating contest. There will be continuous showings of the Kraft salad dressing ("it's out of this world") commercial that was shot in Mars in 2000 and never aired.

Welsh meant for this meet to have a homey, small-town feel, and so there's a lot of built-in interaction with Mars. For example, the artists' first meals will be served by St. John Specialty Care Center, the local nursing home. ("But it won't be pureed," she adds.)

Mars Volunteer Fire Co. is doing a spaghetti supper Friday night, and they're doing a meatless sauce especially for the Letterhead vegetarians. Local restaurants are catering Saturday's Pittsburgh-style supper of pierogies and barbecued ham sandwiches.

Most of the Letterheads will stay at hotels in nearby Cranberry, but Welsh and other project leaders will camp out in the EMS building, while at least two Letterheads are staying with host families.

Mayor Dick Settlemire and other Mars officials have given their blessing to the meet because they think this sounds like fun. He's taking three days off work to be there. "There's too many small towns dying every day, and that's what we're trying to avoid in Mars."

Pfeifer hopes the Letterheads will give this little town a jolt. "It'll look a little more vibrant, it'll look a little more active. I think it's going to be impressive."

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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