On the last Tuesday of every month, I feature a fellow type lover from the Richmond, VA area.
Sarah Apple, of Lucky Signs, has a unique style that blends both illustration and lettering. You may have seen her chalk lettering popping up more and more in local Richmond eateries. Keep reading to find out about her path to lettering, how she refined her chalk skills through a restaurant gig and what inspires her kitschy illustration style.
SARAH BARTON: You studied Communication Arts & Design at Virginia Commonwealth University here in Richmond. How did you get into lettering?
SARAH APPLE: It was a long process. In art school I always felt like I was supposed to have something profound to say or else my work wasn’t valid. Bottom line: I didn’t feel powerful, extremely profound, or strong things to channel into my work like some of my peers. The majority of the time, I felt like I was struggling to find my voice amongst people who always seemed to have something important to say.
Then my junior year I took Arts Licensing with Sally Vitsky, who introduced me to the world of more commercially motivated art. With her guidance I began to realize that you can make work that is simply decorative, or funny, or crass, or lighthearted, and IT STILL SERVES A PURPOSE?!? (I think I was just taking myself too seriously up to that point.) Anyway, a door opened and “low brow," kitsch, folk art and greeting cards became my new obsession. There’s an approachability to that sort of thing that I felt compelled by. I began to see what I wanted from my own work. Functional, daily-life application of my creative skills was what ultimately lead me to lettering.
SB: So in the style of the age-old chicken or egg question, illustration came before lettering?
SA: Yes…but NOT confidently! I’ve always been a doodler and a compulsive drawer… but I felt most content with my creative work staying INSIDE the sketchbook. I think I finally got out of the sketchbook because I realized lettering was useful in my day job — we were always in need of a label or little sign for cookies or a sidewalk sign. So I started honing it in the sketchbook. Knowing what I was making would serve a direct, guaranteed purpose on the outside of the sketchbook made me relax and feel more confident in my work. I channeled my desire to doodle into lettering, and the lettering became a cute label for Peanut Butter Monster cookies. This sequence was the natural push I needed from the universe. I finally began developing my “voice.” (fewf!)
SB: You used to work at The Dog & Pig Show (sadly, no longer a storefront) and lettered the chalkboard signs there. Were you lettering before that or did it help solidify that you wanted to pursue it? Did you have to convince them to let you have free reign of the chalkboards?
SA: Ironically, working at the restaurant 100% helped me develop my interest in lettering and provided me with my first real life application for it too. I have to take this opportunity to digress for a second by saying: working in a restaurant is something I hope everyone gets the opportunity to do in their life. You learn so much about people, about working as a team, about communication and dependability. You learn about yourself and the value of a dollar.
Anyway, I may have had to do a little convincing to James & Isabel (the owners) in the beginning but I think just offering to start with something low-risk, like the sidewalk sign, helped to quickly prove my worth. I think we were also just mutually grateful parties. And throughout it all they’ve been the sweetest most supportive guinea pigs (and dogs…? sorry!) you could ask for. I can tell you with certainty that my work has improved so much because of their providing an outlet for me and cheering for me kindly throughout ALL the growing pains. It’s pretty cool: after 2 years of this symbiosis they’re like "We need to change some of the drinks on the menu board — Nobody touch it! Sarah has to do it!" Which is super cool and flattering as hell, coming from two of the most stylish people I know.
SB: You've created work in other mediums but it seems like you're shifting towards more chalk lettering. Do you prefer that over ink/pencil/paint, etc.? Why?
SA: Definitely trying to build more focus on lettering and illustration in traditional chalk, but a lot of client work I’ve taken lately has required paint markers or enamels, which I’ve been really excited to gain more experience with. I know people have the dreaded “nails-on-chalkboard” association with the traditional version of the medium, but to me there’s something so super satisfying about the creamy texture of traditional chalk on a fresh board. I absolutely love it.
To satisfy that obsession I started a new personal project, which I don’t always make time for lately. I made this goofy #chalkuary hashtag, and I try to post daily chalk drawings on my Instagram. It’s basically my corny take on #inktober. (During the month of October, illustrators from all over the world make daily drawings in black and white and then share on social media.) It’s a fun and simple way to get your creativity flowing, and push out some fresh work. Anyway, with #chalkuary I'm making an effort to combine text with simple illustrations that hopefully pack a small gentle punch...and I have fun with chalk while doing so.
SB: Can you walk us through your creative process step-by-step? Are there any tips specifically for chalk lettering?
SA: Ooooh. The creative process for me varies. Like with the A-frame (sidewalk sign) at The Dog & Pig Show, I earned the Great Fortune of Total Free Reign. So the boards are usually a reflection of what’s on my mind that day — politics (yikes!), a song stuck in my head (I like to cha cha?), maybe a goofy shrimp??? Cool. I get to do that. I’ll usually ask co-workers if they have any contributions too — we are always chatting while opening the restaurant, and sometimes we’ll stumble upon some hilarious/corny inspiration. The sidewalk signs are my absolute favorite because I get to be pretty spontaneous and of-the-moment. At the end of the day, it’s going to be erased, so it can lack some pre-meditation and still be successful. That’s part of why it’s so fun. Other projects, like menu boards that are more permanent fixtures, require a lot more planning and organization of text, a visual hierarchy, and consistent legibility throughout. With this, the creative process is less creative and a little more formulaic (i.e. There’s usually MEASURING involved! And to-scale mock ups!). But it’s nice to get both. One allows me to appreciate the other and I feel like I’ve found a nice balance that way.
SB: What has been your favorite project and why? Hardest project?
SA: I don’t get to choose a favorite project until I’m a high roller. But I cannot deny the fun I have with sidewalk signs...
SB: Where do you get inspiration for your work?
SA: I guess my work simply pulls from life: daily monotony, things friends say, an awkward stranger, an awkward me, FOLKMUSIC, a long walk with my dog on the beach, piña coladas, getting caught in the rain...sorry :P But more seriously: my peers are super inspiring to my work. Or maybe I mean motivating. I'm lucky to have a pool of artist-maker friends to lean on. For example my amazing friend and mural artist Emily Herr, of HerrSuite, decided to take me on as an assistant last year. She’s been a great source of inspiration: she showed me a lot about being your own Bad Ass Boss, doing creative business and working with clients. She neverrrr stops going. She’s inspired and empowered me in my craft.
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SB: If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ (websites, books, coaches, etc.) you’d recommend for lettering, what would you include and why?
SA: Yes! Instagram (sorry, not sorry) has allowed me to discover so many artists that WOULD be best-kept secrets to me otherwise. I mainly look to mural artists, calligraphers and especially sign-painters for inspiration and guidance — there’s a very traditional craft there that utilizes a set of established rules and methods that are timeless and tested, and involve practice. Learning about that has hugely influenced my own work, and my hopes and aspirations for it too. What modern sign painters are doing now with age-old techniques is pretty inspiring too. But anyway, pros from different places and different crafts that lead me NOT into the valley of darkness would be: Drew Melton, Lauren Hom, Mary Kate McDevitt, Alex May Hughes, Better Letters, Mike Meyer, Timothy Goodman, New Bohemia Signs, and a couple local heroes like Emily Herr, Mickael Broth, and Ross Trimmer. To name a few. (NOTE FROM SB: Check out my RVA Q+A with Ross Trimmer!)
SKILLSHARE is also an amazing, easy access online resource — on just about anything, by the way. I highly recommend shelling out the money and getting a subscription. There are so many classes and they are mostly taught by successful and well-versed professionals that love what they do. You can take the course at your own pace or work with the online class in pretty much real time. Worth it.
SB: What do you love most about being a creative in Richmond, Virginia?
SA: For the most part, the community is super supportive and welcoming — I mean we have a top notch art school hear, yo! I guess the scene is becoming more aware of how cool it is, but Richmond still ain’t too big for its britches! That being said, this year I definitely plan on expanding my game out of the state by doing some work/play/travel. They say you always come back to Richmond…I plan on putting that to the test.
SB: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the next few months?
SA: #chalkuary y’all. But more seriously though, keep your eyes peeled for a lot of really fresh sidewalk signage around town. My main goal for the next few months is to intently focus on expanding my client base for the service. The Dog & Pig Show was an amazing place to experiment and build the idea, and with their closing I plan to put some new clients on the docket.