Signs Speak Louder than Words, An Urban Artist's Journey Into the Neon Trade

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Eileen Garrett's love for graphics and lettering evolved out of her earliest experiences growing up in a city where graphic imagery was all around her. Painted signs and neon lights, displayed by the businesses in Garrett's West Philadelphia community, inspired her at a very young age.

Eileen Garrett's love for graphics and lettering evolved out of her earliest experiences growing up in a city where graphic imagery was all around her.

Painted signs and neon lights, displayed by the businesses in Garrett's West Philadelphia community, inspired her at a very young age. All along Market Street merchants offered goods and services, from appliances to zucchinis and just as impressive, to Garrett, were the colorful signs and displays used to help the merchants promote their wares.

In particular she noticed and remembered the signs that were painstakingly hand painted by local sign-men, the Wilson Brothers.

Her first impression of their work was on brightly colored ice cream trucks operated by the Maroni Water Ice Company. Garrett recalls, "The Wilson brother's displays were so vivid that I, a three-year-older, could understand what was being served inside. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the ice cream, water ice, or a pretzel like the one displayed in happy images on the side of the truck. As a child she took in every detail while she waited her turn in line."

During Garrett's teen years graffiti came into vogue. Tags got bigger, brighter, and bolder and the most notable names began appearing all across the city. Graffiti artists were aerial acrobats willing to risk their lives for their works to be seen and Garrett took notice.

Like many young artist growing up in a big city Garrett tried her hand at graffiti but her new vocation was quickly thwarted thanks to Philadelphia's new anti-graffiti campaign. She was one of hundreds of teens arrested during a time when authorities showed zero tolerance for the troublesome vandals. At the tender age of 15 she was escorted to jail for plying her mark on a gym room wall, and to her own disgust, in pencil, not a more grandiose display like the ones she had seen outdoors. She kept her work on paper from that point on, displaying her best pieces publicly at a local variety store where they could be admired, legally, by her peers.

Garrett was also a gifted fine artist. She studied sculpture and other art mediums at Moor College of Art in the heart of Philadelphia's breathtaking parkway. She benefited greatly by the outreach program afforded to inner-city youths and she began to take her art serious at that time.

It was during her employment as a youth instructor at the Germantown YMCA that Garrett was asked produce professional quality displays of her own. She took great pride in designing colorful bulletins, directories, and event banners, and she realized that there was a viable market for her signs so she wanted to learn more.

Garrett sought employment at a sign company in Southwest Philadelphia with hopes of serving as an apprentice to a master sign person. She arrived with the expectation of seeing gentlemen adorned in painted overalls, wielding brushes of all shapes and sizes, but she was surprised by what she found instead. There had been a revolution in the sign industry and things would never be the same.

Thanks to the computer, signs were no longer being painted by hand. Letters were cut from vinyl and applied to a surface in one fell swoop. There was no longer a need for the skilled sign painter, so Garrett tabled her mission to learn how to paint like a master.

Computers had also allowed for the production of an innovative electric sign product called a "channel letter." Channel letters were named for their channel like space behind each detailed letter. These letters called for neon lighting to illuminate them from the inside and the demand for neon could barely be met. Tradesmen who had mastered the art of glassbending were getting too old to work and many had already retired, so the sign company Garrett ventured into developed a policy of trying all of their new hires at the art of bending glass so Garrett would learn a sign trade after all.

Garrett was a natural at glassbending, a skill that takes an incredible amount of control and patience as well as endurance to overcome the heat generated while working glass in a fire. She attributes her ability to bend glass so quickly to her earlier experience in art and sculpture. To date there are very few women in the glass bending trade and even fewer African American Benders working in the US.

Today Garrett owns and operates Empress Signs LLC. a premier manufacturer of neon signs and lighting serving the Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey region. Garrett has designed, manufactured, and installed over 700 signs, many of which are available to view on-line at http://www.empresssigns.com.

Garrett's work is sought out by local companies as well as notable designers in the tri-state area. She has had the pleasure of fabricating neon signs designed by Len Davidson, a noted neon historian in Philadelphia, and author of "Vintage Neon," a wonderful book displaying the history commercial signs, many of which are from the Philadelphia area.

Her work has also appeared on the set of the popular television show, Discovery Kids, "Trading Spaces - Boys VS Girls." Designer Scott Sicari commissioned Garret to design and fabricate "Andres Jazz Lounge," a colorful neon display used as the centerpiece for a child's newly decorated, jazz themed bedroom.

Her latest projects include custom neon for the new Temple University Student Center, a multi-million dollar renovation project that will feature an on-campus lounge, and Temple's very own student cinema.

After 15 years in the neon trade Garrett has developed a philosophy explaining the effectiveness and popularity of neon. She strongly believes that insects are not the only organisms intrigued by the lure of neon and light. "We are all as attracted by, and dependant on light, so it is no mystery why the most prominent businesses in the world use neon to keep their customers attracted, informed, and satisfied."

Garrett knows, first-hand, how effective neon advertising is. "Our clients can rely on a notable increase in walk-in customers" and she states that, "a well made neon sign can attract attention, 24/7 for many many years." Garrett's existing customers take great pride in their unique custom neon, attributing their business success, in part; to the attention they receive with their well lit windows and interiors thanks to neon manufactured by Empress Signs LLC.

To learn more about Eileen Garrett and her company Empress Signs LLC. visit http://www.empresssigns.com, or call Empress Signs @ (856) 784-2767.

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