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VOL. 129 | NO. 212 | Thursday, October 30, 2014

New Book Captures Iconic Memphis Signs

By Andy Meek

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It might be easy to overlook the signage that identifies a place or business when considering the wide sweep of Memphis’ topography.

“Memphis Type History is not just a history book or an art book, it’s a journey and a look back in history and peoples’ memories at different areas of Memphis.”

–Rebecca Phillips

But one Memphis artist took inspiration from the city’s often iconic signs for her newest project, a book on sale now called “Memphis Type History: Signs and Stories from Just Around the Corner.”

For the book, Rebecca Phillips turned photos from photographer Jeremy Greene into paintings with color that often crackles off the page, with many of the signs serving as guideposts on a trip through the Lost Memphis of yesterday as well as capturing the city of the moment.

The retro fonts and memorably shaped signs ground the viewer in front of landmarks like the Arcade Restaurant, for example, and in front of Chiwawa, the Overton Square restaurant with an archway sign that announces “Midtown is Memphis.”

Complementing the images are stories and memories from the public about places identified in the book by their signage, including Memphis landmarks like Walker Radiator Works and colorful Sputnik sign in front of Joe’s Wine & Liquor.

“Memphis Type History,” Phillips said, “is not just a history book or an art book, it’s a journey and a look back in history and peoples’ memories at different areas of Memphis. To meet new people in Memphis who had different experiences, memories and stories to share made this project more meaningful than anything I've ever worked on.

“I feel overjoyed to not have just produced paintings of landmarks I love but to also be part of something that helps preserve Memphis history and people's recollections of this city I've become very attached to.”

Preorders of the book through Nov. 2 at the project’s website, memphistypehistory.com/book, include signed copies of the book, a postcard set featuring three of Phillips’ paintings from the book, a “Memphis Type History” bookmark and a digital download of the first chapter.

Early buyers also get the option for free shipping or local pickup with a print of the illustrated map of signs in the book.

Phillips originally painted the typography and signs from Greene’s photos and later launched a Kickstarter campaign to turn the paintings into affordable posters. She began selling prints of the images, then announced that the paintings and stories about them would be collected in book form.

A website was launched that helped collect stories from the public related to signage from around the city. Caitlin Horton, who helped Phillips market the project, contributed one such story about Universal Life Insurance Co.

Horton explains how she found a photo at the University of Memphis library that captured Jesse Jackson making an appearance at some festivities celebrating the business.

“It's really difficult to pick a favorite chapter, but I can say that Leahy's, which is on Summer Avenue, is high on the list,” Horton said. “It has such a rich history. I got to interview the Grammy Award winning blues musician Charlie Musselwhite for this chapter, which was a real honor. He (talked) about growing up behind the trailer park and making friends with the children of traveling carnival workers. I also got to include a love story that happened because of Leahy's.”

Phillips considers the project special because of the way she feels that documenting Memphis is also a way of “preserving” the city’s history.

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