Kevin Hennessy on making folk art and other signs of the time

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Once you recognize Kevin Hennessy's singular style, it's hard not to notice his work all over Denver. "I used to do the specials on the chalkboard at City, O' City when I worked there -- they'd leave me on the clock and let me (design)," says Hennessy, whose official job at the restaurant was much more kitchen-oriented.

Now that he's making art full-time, Hennessy's hand-crafted font graces the sign that greets customers outside the remodeled incarnation of City, O' City. Hennessy's work is retro without being contrived; instead, the wild style of his graffiti upbringing has merged with the American folk art he's come to respect in a way that looks authentically vintage. The imperfect curves and wiggly lines in his lettering are impossible to reproduce without human hands -- and Hennessy likes it that way.

With Hennessy's Summer Mumbo solo show hanging at Ironwood through the end of the month, Westword caught up with the artist to talk more about bad fonts, good signs and a love for a time gone by.

See also: - Q&A: Chuck Dorsey's old-school window painting reanimates South Broadway - Best of Denver 2012 - Best Eclectica: Ironwood Collection - Artist and writer: An interview with my brother, painter Evan Kutz

Westword: How did Summer Mumbo, your current show at Ironwood, come about?

Kevin Hennessy: Aly (Two Eagles) and Jeff (Childress), who own it, are friends of mine. I used to work with Aly a couple of years back, and when they opened Ironwood, I went down there to check it out and thought it was a great shop -- full of all kinds of cool junk. It kind of looks like the inside of my bedroom.

I went to two different shows there -- and the way they presented and promoted them was really great. I asked Aly if I could show there, and she was actually going to talk to me (about showing) anyway. She had seen my art in the past and thought it would fit well with the shop -- which I think it does. The next time available was September, around my birthday, so I just thought, why not have a birthday party (opening)?

You've not only painted and screened pieces for this show, but done some woodworking. Were the pieces you're showing made for the Ironwood show, or were they already works in progress?

All the skateboards -- planks of hardwood and nice cherry wood -- were made from pieces I had set aside. I had wanted to make a collection of skateboards for a long time; I had this idea for old-school, sidewalk surfboards. When we started talking about this show, the idea popped into my head to make the boards.

I had been thinking about (how to) bring some signage into them, and some printing, too. I wanted a color scheme. All of the printing and all the signage on the skateboards is in primary colors, which was what I wanted for the show -- to keep everything kind of similar in color. It's also based on having fun, being a kid, just skateboarding and stuff.

It fits well within the store -- Ironwood is so intentionally curated, and your pieces definitely belong to the old-school, made-with-care vibe.

Yeah (after the opening) when all of the tables are set back out in the shop, you can see everything. It's a cool place. It's really interesting and fun to look through everything they've got.

This isn't your first solo show, right?

I've showed at different coffee shops and restaurants. Some group shows at galleries around town. It's my second solo show -- but Ironwood is definitely a smaller space, so I put more energy into each piece, rather than trying to fill the space.

The show is definitely a tribute to your work as a sign painter. Where can people see your hand painted signs around Denver?

Let's see: Right now, Nooch Vegan Market has a sign and I did a big one at City, O' City. I did Ironwood's window right now (for the show) and will do another one for them. I did chalkboards for Café Europa and Ace restaurant -- I like doing those boards, just to chill out. I did some addresses along 13th Avenue, boards and the sign at Yellow Feather Coffee and am working on another sign for them right now. I'm getting ready to do some signage around the inside of Meininger on the Hill in Boulder. How did you get into sign painting?

My grandfather was a sign painter in Denver -- the '30s through the late '60s, when he passed away. I never met him, but he definitely was an (inspiration.) My dad's an artist, too, and he's always been into this folk aesthetic -- handmade, locally crafted kind of stuff. I think I grew up with an appreciation for it.

When I started hanging out with the art crowd, I was seeing other artists incorporate letters into their art -- kind of a graffiti, street-art approach to fine art. I liked that. I don't know; I've just always been interested in lettering. I did calligraphy with my mom when I was a kid.

I did a bunch of signs for people and coffee shops free when I was younger, kind of just to do it. I used to do the specials on the chalkboard at City, O' City when I worked there -- they'd leave me on the clock and let me (design). And that was always fun. Even after I quit there, they'd hire me back to do chalk lettering.

There's definitely a lot of people who consider sign painting a cool folk art -- I'm not the only one. I feel like every city I go to, I see a lot of signs that are obviously done by one or two different sign painters around town.

Is sign painting a main mode of income for you?

Yeah, definitely. Doing those odd jobs -- illustrations, lettering, a flier for a band or a company or something -- is cool because I can just hang out in my room and smoke pot and draw. I've realized that as long as whoever I'm doing the image for likes it, eventually, I'll get a little bit of money tossed my way. That's cool. It's also fun seeing lettering or an illustration I've done on a label -- like on some coffee or something.

There's something comforting to me to see a piece of commercial art that I know someone created. There's a lot of shitty graphic design out there to compete with -- pixilated images, bad computer-generated fonts. It's like, I can't even take this business seriously, because the font on the sign sucks.

Totally! There's tons of vinyl shit. Or, like how many businesses do you see with Papyrus as their font? It's one of those things that I notice in other cities, especially when I'm traveling abroad somewhere else where the signage is just awesome; you just don't realize how much (that work) is temporary, reproduced crap here (in America.)

There are so many great artists doing signs in every city. Here in Denver, I've watched another guy painting signs on South Broadway -- I'm not even trying to hone in on his racket or whatever. But I think it's like this... people saying, "Hey, I know this kid Kevin and he'll paint a sign for you." That's cool and I guess that's who I'm appealing to, but that guy, he's a master at his art. I've watched him paint some signs, knocking out a giant window in one day and his lines are so good. Everything about it.

It's exciting to know there are several people painting signs in this town -- that it's not a lost art and it's valuable.

There's another guy who does a lot of signs on Colfax, who is different from the guy on South Broadway. Now I can usually tell when I see any business with hand-painted lettering on it, and if it's done by a professional or an amateur or employee or something. But I like that -- there's this barbershop on Santa Fe, and every time I walk by I think about how crappy the signage is on it. But the fact that it's an old-school barbershop that just rocks a (hand-painted sign), I think, if I got my haircut anywhere, it would be that place. Definitely. It sort of translates to the legitimacy of the barbershop because they value art in some sense. That, and it feels like we live in a little less disposable world.

It just makes walking down the street feel like you're in a less artificial, more sincere place. Everything is so disposable -- it sucks. If I go out and buy something now, if it's not recent technology, I'll look for something that's made in the '70s. And something that's made in the USA. Not like now made in the USA, something that was made back in the day. Things that work, things that are nice to have.

I just hate that everything is so temporary -- and not a good kind of temporary.

It's one of the frustrating things about living in contemporary society -- the desire to be around authentic things. And you can't. You look at old illustrations and paintings of city views and you see signage put into it. Or on road trips, where you can see old lettering on buildings in industrial areas -- like an old flour mill with great old lettering.

I wish I was born in my dad's generation, because so much of what I love and consider valuable is from then -- but there are things I can't take for granted, like social equality. There's not enough preservation; it's one of the things that discourages me, that so much is lost now. In these old neighborhoods, like LoDo, where there used to be abandoned buildings, it's now lofts or whatever.

I used to crawl around in those abandoned buildings and pull out old signage. Even if it was just an arrow that said "restrooms" or "always remember to wear safety goggles," it was all hand-painted. That's what my grandpa did -- he did a lot of signs for elevators in skyscrapers in the 1940s. He'd hand-letter the names of businesses on every floor, or he'd do big boards for restaurants or boards for an event coming up. It wasn't just something created in Illustrator in like an hour with a font and some clip art.

Clip art is the worst.

It is! When I was in high school, people were trying to convince me to go to art school. Like, "Oh, you like art. You should try graphic design!" And that's exactly what I hate. And it's just like the buying and selling of the art industry or the gallery scene -- even if you get into it, you realize it's a bunch of soul suckers and phony people.

Same with commercial art, too. I almost ended up doing graphics at a warehouse I used to work at. They offered me an internship; it was like "most of our interns here have a bachelor's in fine art, but you've been working here for a while and we think it could be a good step for you." I told them no; I didn't want to cut vinyl graphics for a living. They were flabbergasted.

They were like, "This is an opportunity! A lot of art students come here." I'm like, they're art students. I'm not. I just want to do folk art, you know? I'm still a student of art -- I have stacks of font books, old Speedball sign-painting books. I do it on my own terms, and I don't do it to get a piece of paper or a certificate.

Kevin Hennessy's latest solo show, Summer Mumbo, is on view through October at Ironwood, 14 South Broadway.

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