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VOL. 129 | NO. 33 | Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Signs of the Times

Iconic Memphis signage turned into Memphis Type book

By Andy Meek

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A single image of iconic Memphis landmarks such as the Arcade Restaurant or the Lorraine Motel is sometimes all that’s needed to ground the viewer in a place and time and convey whole chapters of Memphis history.

Memphis Type artist Rebecca Phillips with author Caitlin Horton, right, are creating a book showing some of the city’s great landmark signs. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Arguably contributing some of the resonance to those images is the signage identifying the landmarks and businesses. That’s why signage is the inspiration for a new project from Memphis artist Rebecca Phillips, the result of a kind of treasure hunt that involved scouring the architectural topography of the city for vintage signs with bright neons and swirls of retro fonts she can re-create with her paintbrush.

Her project is called Memphis Type, and for it, Phillips replicated photos from photographer Jeremy Greene into paintings. Greene had directed his lens toward evocative signs such as those belonging to Joe’s Wine & Liquor, with its constantly in-motion starburst of color facing Poplar Avenue, and Walker Radiator Works.

Phillips painted the typography and signs from those photos and eventually launched a Kickstarter campaign to turn her paintings into affordable posters. She still sells prints of those images, but later this year, her paintings and Greene’s photos will be paired with text and stories – thanks to help from Front Porch Art co-founder Caitlin Horton – for a book.

Set to be released in October, the book will include images and stories about the Beauty Shop Restaurant, the Lorraine Motel, the Arcade, Shelby Electric and more.

“I kind of saw the images as a way to help preserve Memphis history, as a way of documenting it,” said Phillips, whose artistic inspiration includes old postcards and unusual stories about Memphis. “It just kind of grew from there.”

Caitlin Horton is the author on a book project that will bring to life some of the city’s great images, including the old Skateland sign.

(Submitted Photo)

Horton, whose Front Porch Art is an online art market, ran Phillips’ Kickstarter campaign. It caught the attention of a publisher, and in the period leading up to its publication, Horton and Phillips are collecting stories about the locations that will be featured.

They’re asking the public to submit personal stories about the locations through memphistypehistory.com, the project’s website.

“We’re currently in the process of gathering information on a number of landmarks and signs around Memphis,” Horton said. “We turn the final manuscript around this summer, and until then we’re trying to collect information and hear from as many Memphians as possible. This is Memphis as Memphians see it. It’s been really interesting to tell these stories. I’ve always loved Memphis, but this project has made me love it even more.”

Stories already are starting to multiply and be presented on the project’s website, including a tidbit from Horton about Universal Life Insurance Co. She writes about finding a photo at the University of Memphis library that captured Jesse Jackson making an appearance at some festivities celebrating the business, and she asks members of the public who were there to let her know more.

Phillips said, “I fall in love a little more” with each landmark as she learns about them.

“And I love the process of this going from photography to a painting to a book – it’s all kinds of art forms merged into one project,” Phillips said. “We also started a blog for it, which I’m excited about as well, so it’s not just going to stop at a book. My vision is that it will continue going and we’ll still learn about even more landmarks that aren’t included in the book.

“This is a great way for communities in Memphis to share their experiences and stories and history with each other.”

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