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Ghost Signs

The Art of Dana Forrester

by John Troesser
Photos courtesy Dana Forrester
Colfax, ghost sign painting by Dana Forrester

The Wyeth of Ghost Signs - the Vargas of Corvettes

From his home in western Missouri, watercolorist Dana Forrester does for the automobile what Vargas did for women or Andrew Wyeth did for barns.

Painting the smooth, shiny surfaces of sleek classic cars (most of them Corvettes), Forrester places his models in front of the faded and peeling vintage ads known as wall signs, ghost signs, or (in the words of ghost sign aficionado Glenn Rebholtz) "vestige billboards."

The wall ads predate the cars by several decades while the rough, gritty textures provide an effective contrast to the pudding-skin, baked-enamel colors of the cars.

When he was about ten years old, painter Edward Hopper expressed his desire to be a painter, and so it was with Dana Forrester. While still in elementary school, Dana told his parents of his wishes. And like Hopper's, Dana's parents encouraged him, providing a tutor for Saturday morning lessons while most boys his age were watching westerns or cartoons. But similarities with Hopper came to an end. While it took Hopper twenty years to sell his first painting, Dana didn't have to wait that long.
Royal Blue, ghost sign painting by Dana Forrester
Royal Blue

The Car Factor

The automotive component of Forrester's art began to take form when a red and white Corvette sped by his parents' car on a Kansas highway in 1958. It might've been Marty Milner and George Maharis on their endless trip to California, but whoever it was Dana's life was changed forever.
Generation Gap, NEHI ghost sign painting by Dana Forrester
The Generation Gap
Satori in Kirksville

The second component to his art didn't appear until 1974 when Forrester first discovered a painted sign almost literally in his own backyard (technically two blocks from his childhood home). Shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam, while changing a roll of film in a back alley, Dana looked up to see a multi-layered almost "surreal" relic from his youth.

Wanting to enter a painting in the prestigious American Watercolor Society exhibition in NYC, he thought this old Coca-Cola sign might just be far enough "off the wall" to be considered by the judges. So he invested three months of evenings and weekends reproducing the faded Sherwin Williams "bulletin" colors in watercolor. A painter painting paint painted by forgotten painters.
The watercolor was entitled "The Vanishing Nickel Coke," and it was one of only 300 out of 10,000 entries to be accepted. Exhibited alongside the work of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, it sold as soon as the exhibition closed and the painting went on the market. Luckily for his future fans, Dana retracted his oath to never again paint another wall sign.

Forrester started painting full time in 1987, although it wasn't until 1990 when he first put a car and sign together. The walls didn't exactly take a back seat to the cars, but they did become the background. Still, they were painted with the same meticulous care as his first effort. Forrester has been collecting both signs and cars -- with 15,000 (photographs) of the former and considerably fewer of the latter. More than 30 years after seeing his first sign, he admits that he still finds discovering additional ones "an addiction."

He eventually became a signature member of the American Watercolor Society (a group of only 500 members) as well as the National Watercolor Society. He continues to add to his impressive body of work by painting commissioned pieces and producing limited edition lithographs of original watercolors. It remains a time-consuming process with up to 150 hours invested in a single painting. Demand is such that, in at least one case, people were ordering lithographs of a work still in progress. If you can't wait for an original or a lithograph, however, there's good news.
Purple People Eater, ghost sign painting by Dana Forrester
Purple People Eater
The Book

Against the Wall: The Architectural and Automotive Art of Dana Forrester was published in 2003. In the beautifully bound, 136-page book (not printed in China but Oklahoma City, we're happy to say) a brief biography and artist's statement appear, followed by a sampling of Forrester's architectural paintings. This is what could be called his "neon and storefront" period, and like Georgia O'Keeffe's oversized flowers, the paintings are intended to make the viewer notice what often goes unnoticed. And they succeed wonderfully. Forrester admits that he occassionally enjoys "in your face" art, somewhat ironic considering that he repeatedly had to clean greasy nose prints off the glass when his first painting was shown.

The rest of Against the Wall consists of fifty car and sign paintings with accompanying stories appearing beside them or on facing pages. Even the titles occasionally provide a subtle or wry play on words. When you consider the time that goes into each painting, you can bet some thought went into the titles as well.

Sometimes a wall sign will be a composite of two different signs, with perhaps a fire escape thrown in for good measure. This adds another creative outlet for Forrester as well as another layer for the viewer to enjoy. Details are sometimes painted from life -- like a clothesline tied across the artist's studio to enable him to get shadows and wrinkles just right.

After painting and enjoying so many signs, Dana is surprised that he still meets people who look at his art and realize that they've never really noticed wall signs. Our bet is that they can't say the same thing after seeing his work.

The Art of Dana Forrester - Page 2 - more photos
John Troesser
The Book - Order Information
Against the Wall:
The Architectural and Automotive Art of Dana Forrester
By Dana Forrester
Copyright Dana Forrester
Publisher: Neighbors and Quaid, Inc.
1600 Sunset Lane
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73127
The paintings reproduced here are from Dana Forrester's Website: www.danaforrester.com

Subject: "Caravan Stop"
...I've published a new series titled "Caravan Stop" that features the Shamrock, Texas, landmark of the Tower Conoco Station. The station was recently restored to its original 1935 condition and I decided its Route 66 heritage would make a great setting for my painting of all six generations of Corvettes. My wife and I host a number of Corvette caravans and such caravans were the inspiration for "Caravan Stop". Thanks. - Dana Forrester, A.W.S., N.W.S., November 08, 2006

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October 14, 2005
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