News Column

Jackson County sign company celebrates 30 years of business

August 22, 2014

By Zack Harold, Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.

Aug. 22--RIPLEY -- Walking through Mark McComas' studio is like taking a trip through graphic design history.

Watch your step.

As you come through the door, you'll pass cans of Sign Painter's 1 Shot paint and a toolbox of squirrel hair paintbrushes soaking in motor oil.

Walk a little farther and you'll see McComas' printing presses and row after row of metal type.

He jokes that if the terrorists ever put off one of those electro-magnetic pulse bombs and wipe out the power grid, the local newspaper could come over to his shop and put out the next day's edition.

Until then, McComas uses the vintage printing presses to make little pamphlets and religious tracts.

Past the letterpress machines sits McComas' drawing table.

He is currently working on a graphic novel based on the old "Wild Wild West" television show.

His original story features main characters James West and Artemus Gordon along with a steampunk cyborg named Copperhead.

McComas' computer sits in the back corner of the room, connected to a vinyl cutter and large full-color vinyl printer.

This is where he does most of his work now.

In the old days when he painted everything by hand, it might take McComas all day to paint logos on one pickup truck.

Now he can draw up a full-color design, either by hand or on the computer, send it to the printer and make as many decals as his customer needs.

From there, it's just peel and stick.

A lot has changed in the 30 years since McComas started Jackson Signs. But that's just technology.

McComas still has the same artist's eye and love of letters.

It started when he was a young child.

When he was five and six years old, McComas loved to bang on his parents' Smith-Corona manual typewriter. He would mash down the caps lock key and type out headlines from the morning paper.

He founded the "Cottageville Press," a monthly newspaper printed on a mimeograph machine, when he was 9 years old.

McComas got his first letterpress when he was 12. He made business cards and even got a contract to print bills for the local water company, perforating the bottoms so they could be torn off.

"What 12-year-old do you know that has a favorite type style?" he said.

McComas had one. It was "Cooper Black."

He took journalism in high school, then headed off to Marshall University where he majored in history and minored in journalism.

He left after a few semesters, however, deciding he would rather pursue art full-time.

McComas moved back home with his parents and got a job at the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Ravenswood.

He spent the next 15 months saving every penny possible, until he had enough to attend The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

His wages from the aluminum plant were enough to cover his entire tuition and most of his living expenses, but McComas made money on the side by painting signs.

He learned to paint signs by studying books on the subject, but he also spent plenty of time hanging out with older sign painters.

They showed him how to use masking tape to paint straight lines and how to count letters to make sure the text was perfectly aligned.

He learned to preserve his brush hairs by storing them in oil and to save his old patterns in case a job ever needed a re-do.

Sign painting gave McComas steady work, because he would take jobs other sign painters would not.

"They'd send me out because I didn't complain if I didn't get paid," he said.

If someone didn't want to pay, McComas wasn't afraid to take them to magistrate court.

He met his wife, Donna, a fellow Art Institute student, while in Pennsylvania and they got married soon after McComas graduated.

The couple then moved to Ohio where McComas took a job as a staff artist for the Chillicothe Gazette. He stayed at that job for four years before returning to Pennsylvania to teach commercial art, journalism and drama at a short-lived Bible institute in Pennsylvania.

The job only lasted one semester -- the school ran out of money to pay McComas -- so he and Donna moved back to Jackson County. McComas went back to work painting signs for Charleston's The DeSIGNers.

"That's what the Lord kept putting back to me," he said.

His time with The DeSIGNers was short-lived, too. After three months, the work dried up and the company gave McComas his walking papers.

That was Feb. 4, 1984. He started Jackson Signs the same day.

The business' first home was a 14-foot by 14-foot lawnmower shed. McComas had to paint his big jobs outside on the porch.

He was eventually able to expand. McComas purchased the property next door to his shed and moved his shop into a mobile home on the property.

McComas stayed in that location until 2007, when he moved to a storefront in downtown Ravenswood. Business was difficult after the economy tanked in 2008, but he was able to pull through and move to his current studio in Ripley, conveniently located right off Interstate 77 and close to the Ripley Wal-Mart.

While sign-painting was once a relatively low-tech business, McComas estimates 80 to 90 percent of his work is done on a computer now.

Jackson Signs purchased its first vinyl cutter in 1995 with a $4,000 loan from the bank.

"It was a big investment for us."

It was a wise investment. The machine, which uses a computer-driven blade to cut out designs from sticky sheets of vinyl, vastly increased the efficiency of the business.

Once he had the design completed, McComas could create dozens of signs in minutes.

Two years ago, McComas made his shop even more high-tech with the purchase of a full-color vinyl printer.

While the cutter only allowed McComas to create one color at a time, the printer allows him to make full color signs.

He recently made a new back glass illustration for a client's pinball machine using digital pictures of the original.

McComas also uses the printer to put his original artwork on signs, like the bucolic landscape he painted for the Evans, W.Va.'s welcome signs. He painted the picture with watercolors, scanned it into his computer and printed it on vinyl.

He still occasionally breaks out his paints and brushes to hand-paint a sign, but clients usually only ask for that when an old sign needs repairing.

McComas is happy either way. He just likes making art and helping people communicate.

"I am here with an art school education and a love of letters," he said.

Call 304-532-4078 for more information about Jackson Signs.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or zack.harold@dailymailwv.com. Follow him on Twitter on www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

___

(c)2014 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)

Visit the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.) at www.dailymail.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Charleston Daily Mail (WV)


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