Emily Fromm documents and captures the vibrant signs, streets, and people of California. Inspired by the craftsmanship, color, and authenticity of traditional American signmaking, she has amassed a portfolio of energetic and dynamic paintings that make you feel like you're there in the middle of it. Her newest show, Open Late, opens tonight in San Francisco, so we caught up with her to hear about her process and the story behind her work. ––Eben Benson
Where are you from? How did you get started making art and sign painting?
I grew up in Santa Clarita, which is a suburb on the north side of Los Angeles County. I always liked painting when I was a little kid, and the interest stayed with me through high school, so I ended up pursuing it in college at San Francisco State. When I was there, I started experimenting with flat colors and graphic-style lines, but was trying to work with oil paints at the time, so it was a really inefficient process. Painting sections of colors on a painting doesn’t take a ton of time, but the long dry-time made it difficult to outline and add layers. So when I realized that acrylic paint is cheaper, and dries fast and flat, it was a game-changer. I looked to sign painting to learn more about the process, and to try to learn how to do what I was doing in a better and easier way. Coincidentally, because I was painting in such a flat style in my artwork, that I ended up getting a few opportunities to paint logos, text, and murals for clients, which I still do on the side. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to paint actual commercial exterior signs for any businesses, all of my work so far has been interior, but I would love to someday.
How and when did you shift towards making bigger work? Your work still contains a lot of sign-like imagery, what about that style intrigues you and compels you to feature it so prominently in your work?
It’s easier for me to paint in a larger format. I like the lines and text in my paintings to be pretty precise, but I do them by hand with a paint brush, so it’s hard for me to get consistent lines when I work small. Making larger pieces allows me to create lines that are thicker but more even, and still allows room in the piece for complexity and detail. I’ve done smaller pieces in the past, but often would make series comprised of smaller, simpler square paintings, which I would paint in the same color palette and arrange on the wall in a grid. I think I’ve also always liked the visual impact of larger work. I like the idea that even from far away, if you’re unable to see what’s happening in the painting, the piece might still be appealing to look at like a pattern.
I’ve always been drawn to neon signs, vintage fonts, businesses with crazy mascots, and hand painted signs. In LA, everything from donut shops to auto mechanics have big, loud signage, and with the amount of time that you spend in traffic there, you end up looking at them a lot. My mom was also really into collecting anything 1950s or retro, so I grew up going to thrift stores, antique malls and swap meets with her all of the time. I liked looking through things like old food tins and canisters, toys, magazines and ads, fruit crate labels, things like that - they all had cool text and flat, simple illustrations. We also had family in Las Vegas and Carson City, Nevada who we would drive to visit pretty often, so that was a sign goldmine for me. When I first started painting cityscapes, I started taking reference photos while I was out if I saw something on the street that I thought I might want to paint. I found that the scenes that I wanted to get pictures of almost always were places with great signs. Lately, I’ve been trying to get shots of scenes where signs overlap and create complicated areas of text and shapes.
Who are some artists that influenced your style early on?
I guess the first art that I was really exposed to and felt like I connected with was from cartoons and books. I was always into Dr. Suess, and was definitely attracted to the colors in the books. They were sometimes as simple as just black ink on white paper with one or two other colors, but they were the most fun to look at for me. I loved Shel Silverstein’s illustrations, specifically how expressive he was able to be using such simple line work. I remember getting tapes of Max Fleischer’s original 1930s Betty Boop cartoons from my neighborhood library when I was young, and watching every episode over and over again. That developed into an interest in older cartoons in general. Betty Boop was mostly in black and white, but from there I got interested in shows like The Flintstones, Popeye, The Jetsons, Super Friends, etc. Most of those older cartoons didn’t use very many colors, and the ones that did use color were usually kind of washed out, off-primary colors. I think that’s still something I’m trying to capture or speak to a little bit.
Has living in San Francisco changed the way you view sign painting? Do you think San Francisco has a particularly vibrant aesthetic in our signs? I remember in Beautiful Losers, Margaret Kilgallen said she was often inspired by the signs in the Mission.
Definitely. It feels like it’s a different brand of signage in a way. The signs I was used to farther south and in Nevada are flashier, and physically larger, often with more or brighter colors. You see a lot more enormous signs for chain restaurants and larger businesses everywhere there too, the old ones are kind of just peppered in. San Francisco’s signs, to me, feel a little bit more subdued. They’re quieter and a little bit smaller, not usually as bright (even the flashy ones), and seem a little bit more personal for some reason. Maybe it’s because they were designed to be viewed on foot or from a city street more than on a highway, I’m not sure. Chinatown always gets me, North Beach, the Outer Sunset where I live - almost everything is fun to look at here.The Mission is definitely a great place to look for signs. I can definitely imagine Margaret Kilgallen being inspired by the the hand-painted lettering and signage on some of the older brick buildings especially. There’s a lot of amazing work here in the way of signs, and I think it really contributes to the beauty and uniqueness of the city. Signage made with that kind of craftsmanship is a relic of the past, and it has lasted in a very cool way here.
What's your show at 111 Minna like? Is this body of work particularly different from your past work?
I have 11 paintings in Open Late, most of which are new and were made especially for the show. This series of work focuses primarily on locations that are here in San Francisco, whereas in the past, I’ve painted a lot of locations in the Southwest area. I really enjoyed looking at the places that I frequent or pass by daily here in the city more closely. It’s made it very apparent to me how lucky I am to live somewhere that allows me to find inspiration everywhere, in my everyday life, rather than search for it elsewhere. The show also includes one collaboration piece, a lit sign that I made with artist and friend, Alphonzo Solorzano. He built the sign, and I hand-painted the text. It was very fun to work on something different, and to see an object from one of my paintings come to life. You can see the sign painted in a window on one of the paintings in the show.
What are your plans for after this show?
I do commissioned work as well as my regular paintings, usually of houses, businesses or locations that people have specifically asked me to paint for them, so I have a few projects to catch up on. I also have some mural and sign painting work lined up, and am currently trying to pursue some public art opportunities. My boyfriend Jimmy and I will be curating a Seinfeld-themed art show in the Fall at The Honey Hive Gallery in the Outer Sunset, featuring work by local artists inspired by the show Seinfeld. I’ve also been traveling extensively this year and taking a lot of photos, so I’m excited to get back to painting.
Be sure to check out Emily's show at 111 Minna through July 29th