Bo Hughins

StudioSigns of the times

by Brett Levine    

Photo by Jerry Siegel

Bo Hughins did not set out to be a sign painter. Although he has always been interested in graffiti, street art and large scale pieces, working regularly outdoors on commissioned works was not part of the picture. “I grew up in a print shop that my father owned,” he explains, “so I have always been interested in graphics and design, not just from the approach of its artistry, but also from the perspective of someone working with fonts and scale.”

Hughins graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and worked in a range of arts-related jobs but was not making a living from his artwork. “I had done several large-scale works for a number of clients, but I guess my first real shift towards sign work came from a project at Railroad Square.”

After completing the project in a new development directly across from Birmingham’s Railroad Park, more opportunities presented themselves. “I was working during the day, and trying to find a way to make my work at night,” Hughins laughs, “and I just felt it wasn’t working. I decided to simply make my commercial painting a day job and see what would transpire.”

Hughins’ gamble paid off when Avondale Brewery invited him to create a huge painting for their outdoor beer garden. Simply asked to paint the iconic elephant Miss Fancy, Hughins turned to something he was incredibly familiar with. “I probably spray-painted 98 percent of that piece,” he smiles. “After that, it was simply a matter of cleaning up the fine detail with brushwork.” Hughins’ approach was unique. “I was given almost complete creative freedom,” he remarks, “so when I went to get my paints, I realized I could create a really beautiful sepia-toned painting with the colors they had.” What resulted is a centerpiece in the Avondale Brewing courtyard.

“I think the key to working outdoors is preparation,” he continues. “By the time I put the first mark on a surface, I’ve already completed the majority of the work, from the design to the color to the composition. Then, it is simply a matter of taking the idea from the page to the wall.”

Hughins has been welcomed by the Birmingham sign painting community. “I’ve been helped so much by the Walldogs. They are artists who create historic outdoor murals for cities and towns that invite them. They go in for a weekend, create a public work, and go home. If I have a technical question in particular, it is great to have a group of people to turn to.”

Hughins sees the reemergence of hand-painted signs as another indication that the craft movement is being embraced. “I think about all the ghost signs around Birmingham, and the great book by Charles Buchanan, as really highlighting a history that I think we are all rediscovering.” This approach has led Hughins to have invitations from a range of local businesses to create murals and signage for their premises. “What is so interesting is that handmade signs literally illustrate shifts in our historical styles and cultural aesthetics. Now,” he continues, “I can take those histories and use them as influences to make my works feel appropriate to the style and period of the building or the aesthetic that a client wants. It’s not about copying something, it’s about understanding what is appropriate for the time.” This interest has led Hughins to study and focus on time periods, fonts and typestyles. “I really want to be able to understand sign painting’s history so I can use those influences to create a personal point of view.”

At the moment, Hughins is finishing his third piece for Avondale Brewing before moving on to various projects for other clients. “I think what is most important for me is to be able to paint anything a client wants, but to also keep the work personal. I make fine art too, so I sometimes distinguish between pieces I make in the studio and ones I make on commission. In the end, I simply consider myself an artist and whether it is personal or commercial, I own it, and I love it.”

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