Wednesday, April 12, 2006
This is seventy-one year old Ed Copeland and he has been in the hand-painted sign business for over 44 years. Ed started the business in Michigan when he was twenty-six years old. "I had a business in Village Park, our one horse town in Michigan that I ran part time. It was a concession business next to the high school. You know it was one of those hotdog/popcorn stands. It was a permanent structure and had been there for many years. So the first year I didn’t do anything but take care of that business and it was seasonal. I said well, jeez I am going to just stick a sign in the front window of this concession business saying, “Signs done here, fair rates". I did pretty good with the sign business considering it was part-time. Little did I know that I would be sitting here today talking to someone about my career?"
Ed was born in Detroit, Michigan and raised in a little town south of there called Jonesville. Growing up Ed was interested in art and horses. "I realized that I was very talented in art early on and most artist don’t do sign work, but I was able to do both." Although educated in the fine arts, Ed considers himself a self-taught sign painter. He tried to get involved in horse racing art but it was pretty hard to do because it’s not what you know it’s who you know. Ed attended Fort Wayne Art School for two years after high school and then in 1958 took a short course at the Art Institute in Pittsburg. He was considered a great student there, but began to push himself beyond his limits and his nerves began to act up. “The pressure was getting to me so I had to drop out. My dad suggested that I go work at Yellowstone National Park in the laundry department for a few months and I did that instead." Once back in Michigan, Ed took a two-year correspondence course through the mail at a famous art school in Westport, CT founded by Norman Rockwell. “I also did something that I didn’t think I would get an answer too. Soon after I started the course I wrote a letter to Norman Rockwell and complimented him as an artist. You know who Norman Rockwell is don’t you? Well he is my idol. To make a long story short he answered the letter and wished me luck in the art course.” The letter is one of Ed's favorite collectors items.
In 1977 Ed moved to Louisville, a larger city that would be more profitable for the sign business. "To make a long story I had been to the Kentucky Derby off and on in the fifties and sixties. My dad was a dentist, and he adopted my brother and me when I was a year old. One of his hobbies was Shetland ponies. He had ponies and of course all kids wanted a pony for their birthday and we had twenty of them! He also had a live merry-go-round business and we would travel to different carnivals and county fairs during the summer. They had harness racing at the county fair so that’s how I got interested in horse racing. When I got old enough I started learning about the KY Derby, of course little did I know that I was going to end up down here? This year will be my 35th Derby. Anyway, the program cover for 1976 KY Derby was hideous. So I sent samples of my work to Churchill Downs and I figured I would follow it up by moving down to Louisville whether they accepted it or not because I liked the town. I went to see the big shot at Churchill downs and to make a long story short I knew I was going to get the brush-off. My first job when I moved to Louisville was at Churchill Downs in the parking lots. One of the employees said, “you like to come down here so much why don’t you work here?” I ended up working on the backside too for two seasons. At that time Louisville had two other tracks including harness and quarter horse racing in the west end. I worked at all three and even put lettering on horse vans. You couldn’t get behind the scenes anymore than that I don’t believe."
Ed advertises his business by carrying two poster-boards filled with colored sample drawings, pictures and his phone number. He also carries a brief case with his rates hand-painted on the side. Ed never leaves home without the posters and briefcase. He feels strange without them, "They identify who I am." Just last week he was at the grocery store and a woman approached him for a business card. “I try to update the sign every once in a while. You can’t keep those in A-1 shape when you’re carrying them around all the time.” This form of advertisement was an accidental idea. A long time ago he was at a restaurant next to Churchill Downs when a horse exercise rider commissioned him to paint a sign for Mary Jane Champlain Racing Stable. In good faith Ed made the sign but when he delivered it, the guy had gone out and got drunk the night before and spent all his money. He expected Ed to give him the sign for free. “Well I wasn’t going to give him the sign so that gave me the idea well, hey, why not come up with some kind of a deal that you could carry around.” He used the Mary Jane Champlain sign as his first poster advertisement. Ed says that the general public often thinks that he is trying to sell the drawings on his advertising posters. It annoys him because they do not realize that those are just samples.
Today Ed says the hand-painted sign business has pretty much been replaced by computer generated stick-on letters. He doesn’t even know how they make them, but knows computer made signs are fast and cheap. He thinks they are also uncreative. “I still think, I call it the ‘old-fashioned way,’ is the best. I think that human touch is what is being lost today." Ed does not entirely support himself through the sign business. “Years ago, you wouldn’t recognize me now from then, but I had a bad nervous breakdown. I had nerve problems all my life. Usually if a person has a nervous condition they wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work so I surprised myself and that really helped my nerve condition to focus on drawing and being accurate. So anyway I was on disability and now I am on social security disability”. Ed qualified for section-8 housing and a minister friend helped him get into KY Towers Apartments downtown. He can still work and is not ashamed of his circumstances. Ed says that he is reasonably financially stable and is economical, never going off the deep-end. He does not drink or smoke. “I try to get a good night sleep so I do feel good most of the time. I don’t think I have a set routine. Each day is a new challenge and I love to talk to people and I am good on communications. Of course a lot of people would like to be left alone. They won’t even look at you to say hello in this society today. To make a long story short an average day, well I can’t really say, everyday seems to be different. I think it motivates me more. Because many jobs that you go to, it’s all routine. Once you get done you haven’t accomplished anything.” Ed can walk by his signs anytime of day and say, “hey I did that,” and that makes him feel pretty good.
Ed never married but almost did one time, " I guess it just wasn’t meant to be". He loves his art and considers it his best talent. “I think that everyone has a talent, you’ve got a talent and everyone that you see out here has a talent. Otherwise God wouldn’t have put them on this earth.” Ed grew up with church being the main activity of town. He has always been religious but his relationship with God has grown stronger over the years. He believes that God is directing him everyday and shows him how to do things. “You just can’t do it on your own.” Lately the press in Louisville has taken an interest in what Ed is doing. Bob Hill from the Courier Journal recently wrote a piece about him and the photographer Matt Stone from Velocity took his picture last week. Ed felt good about Bob’s article but was surprised that not too many people approached him afterwards. But overall the attention makes him feel pretty good about himself and his accomplishments.
Ed's thoughts on technology, society and politics:
"I like technology in a way and in a way it makes me a little, not mad, but shake my head. A lot of it is good in the way that it is being used, but a lot of it has taken over people’s ability to talk one-on-one. I think that people isolate themselves so much with TV’s and computers. I mean they're still talking to somebody but they are not doing what we are doing here. And I think that is a bad part of technology. People are lost in their own worlds walking down the street with headphones on, I don’t know what they’re listing too, or talking on the cell phone. I don’t want that. I am going to walk down a street and look at nature. And young people are actually getting overweight from sitting behind a computer so much. So in away it is detrimental, it’s not all constructive. I can see a use in some ways but I think it is being abused. Cell phones for sure. People are feeling lonelier because they are letting this technology run their lives. People were happier when I was growing up. They had less and they knew how to manage their money. Now they are going in debt head-over-heals and I don’t see any sense to it. I don’t own a credit card and I don’t want one. And I have got an answering machine on the telephone and that’s it. No cell phone and I don’t miss it. I think that people have too much to juggle today and that they make their own stress. Most people are in debt so no wonder they’re miserable. T.V. has promoted buy now, pay later and I think TV has brainwashed many people today. And then Christmas, I’m a Christian, is gone. The real meaning of Christmas is gone. I would like to hope that it gets back to what it used to be but I’m afraid we have gone over board and that the newer generation does not think like we used too growing up. And politicians today are just like kids fighting over something. They have lost their humanity and they just that don't care about us anymore.“