Father, son duo make signal portray a household enterprise
Go to any McMenamins location and you will see Nick Lee’s artwork.
In fact, Lee’s work should be the first thing you see.
“I do all of the hand-painted signs for McMenamins hotels and restaurants,” he said. “Pretty much everyone you go, the characters are something that I or my father painted.”
In a large studio in southeast Portland, Lee spends his days creating characters for a variety of clients. Some are quick and economical prints made on a computer, while others, like those for McMenamins, are cumbersome and require a more comprehensive, hands-on approach.
“It can be tricky because if someone just wants a quick vinyl sign it can be done in a day, as opposed to a hand-painted and carved sign that can take weeks or months,” he said.
Lee is the owner of Studio Signs and Pictorial Displays Inc. and is responsible for creating some of the most eye-catching signs and billboards in Portland.
The space is adorned with a variety of artwork depicting characters Lee has created over the years, from hand-painted coffee advertisements to shiny gold lettering on glass.
Lee is putting the finishing touches to his latest work, an oval wooden sign that will eventually appear in McMenamins’ Annex Bar in downtown Portland.
Lee carefully paints the outlines of the ivory-colored letters in bright red, creating a stark contrast to the black background of the sign.
“It’s the little details that really make a good sign,” he said. “Even though it’s only a limit, it’s important. It’s part of the layout and helps with the overall design. “
The process is slow and methodical, but the payoff is well worth the work. Lee said the variety of characters he’s allowed to make is a big part of what motivates him.
“One day I could make a wooden sign, the next day I could make a carved sign, the next day I could do gold leaf on glass, the next day I could do silkscreen on metal.”
For Lee, sign painting is a family business.
“I am a second generation draftsman. My father ran the business before I bought it. So I was pretty much born into the world of sign painting, ”he said.
Nick Lee stands next to his latest project, a sign for the McMenamins Annex Bar. Studio Signs Co. painted all of the signs for McMenamins.
His father, Melvin Lee, moved to Portland from Vancouver, BC, in the 1970s and found work at Studio Signs with then-owner Dean G. Stanley. Melvin Lee and the other painters there created a range of signs, from truck lettering to lettering outside buildings, some of which are still standing today.
“A lot of the characters we make are out there and pretty permanent, some lasting 10 to 15 years,” said Melvin Lee. “We put a lot of time and effort into one piece of work, so it’s nice when our things are viewed over a long period of time.”
When Stanley had to retire, he chose Melvin Lee as his successor. In 1985 Melvin bought and ran the business.
Nick Lee, who grew up in the store, learned the various sign making techniques from his father and the other painters around him. Although he initially had no plans to work at Studio Signs, he was eventually drawn to the opportunity to continue his art education under the guidance of his father.
“I said, ‘Hey, I want to do this all day and learn how to do all the traditional things.’ And so he started teaching me handwriting, sign painting, screen printing, and gold leaf on all the cool traditional things, and I’ve just walked with it ever since, ”he said.
Years of work at Studio Signs and attending workshops from established sign makers helped Nick Lee improve his artistic skills and knowledge of running the family business. When Melvin was due to retire in 2018, it was natural for Nick to take over the office.
Nick Lee adopted the technology as a tool for making signs. This includes graphic design software and the use of a vinyl plotter, a machine originally introduced by his father when he took over, to create faster, more economical signs more efficiently.
Even with the latest technology, Lee said, traditional hand-painted signs are still preferred by many customers for their timeless appeal and sense of permanence.
“That’s why lawyers and banks traditionally have gold leaf. Companies that are invested in the community want nice characters that last because they show that they will stay here, ”said Nick Lee.
The Lees’ artwork was recognized outside of the state of Oregon.
Recently they were at a special art exhibition in San Francisco called “But Where Are You Really From?” showing the creations of character painters who are people of color.
For the exhibition, Nick Lee created two works of art that highlighted his Chinese-American heritage. One of the pieces was made of liquid silver with the date 1882 on the obverse. The date is significant as it refers to the year that the Chinese Exclusion Law was passed in the United States.
“I was born in 1982 and it’s kind of a tribute to this dark story, but 100 years later I’m a Chinese-American artist. So this is my comment on that, ”he said.
While Lee appreciated the attention he received for his own work, he was much happier for his father and the recognition he received for his years in the business.
“In the past, a sign painter was just a sign painter,” said Nick Lee. “To make younger people say, ‘Hey, we appreciate your work and we want you to actually make a poster so we can remember.’ I think that was really cool for my dad. “
As the third owner of the company, Lee never loses the importance of continuing the Studio Signs legacy. The business, which began in 1963 and passed on to Melvin and now Nick, has a long history of providing quality work that has stood the test of time.
“My dad and I are both lifelong martial artists, and just like there is a line between teacher and student in the martial arts world, I feel like there is a similar line with the sign shop,” Lee said.
But even when he puts the finishing touches to his latest shield, he still finds joy in it and looks for new techniques to learn and improve his craft.
There is always more to learn, he said.
Meanwhile, Melvin Lee is retiring knowing that his son will continue the work he has done for so many years.
“I’m proud of him,” he said with a smile.