Portraits from the Big Bend: Carolyn Macartney

Our new weekly series, “Portraits from the Big Bend,” explores the public figures and personalities that make our region such a special and interesting place.

MARFA — Carolyn Macartney taught film production at Southern Methodist University for around 12 years, achieving tenure. She liked the job well enough — at least at first — but she grew tired of sitting in front of a computer. Upon realizing it was finally time for a change, she left SMU in 2014.

Macartney then turned to an old interest: designing and painting letters. She had studied calligraphy as an art major at Smith College in the 1980s — where she remembers hunching over her desk late into the night, trying to get a letter perfect.

Fast forward to this year, and Macartney, 56, is now an award-winning sign painter. On September 5, Signs of the Times, a sign-industry publication, awarded her third place among small and medium shops for her work painting the sign outside The Sentinel. (Full disclosure: That’s our coffee shop.)

In a phone interview last week, she said she was loving the career switch-up. 

You get to be outside with a paintbrush,” she said. “That’s cool.”

Macartney got back into sign painting in earnest around early 2015, when she painted the sign for The Paper Place, a custom printer in Dallas. Since then, she’s painted “so many” signs, from bars and restaurants to a well-known Marfa Airbnb.

Some people really get into it,” she said of designing and laying out the forms of words — and she is apparently one of those people. In her interview, she casually dropped the names of fonts from Casual (the font used for “Sentinel”) to the clean and simple Gothic fonts. 

Commercial Gothic is one of her favorite fonts, but she thinks Batman and other cultural forces have created misunderstandings about the Gothic font family. “People imagine Dracula letters,” she said.

As Macartney sees it, the resurgence of classic, hand-painted signs is part of the larger cultural movement to re-embrace artisanal and small-batch goods.

What happened was: you had sign painters, and then you had computers come in, so you had this whole generation with no sign painting,” she said, describing the historical shifts that made hand-painted signs an endangered species. Now they are having a comeback, thanks to “the younger tattoo-and-piercings crowd.”

To lay out The Sentinel’s signage, she did mock-ups of her designs for the storefront. She experimented with the placement of the name and debated whether to include the trademark horse-and-cowboy. (No, she decided.) When a final design was picked, she set up her scaffolding and got to work.

After Smith College, Macartney spent a year studying at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin on a painting scholarship. It gave her a taste for European font designs, and the way they prized individualism over cutesiness.

Inspiration also came, she said, from driving through small towns in the United States and admiring the signage on old shops. In the countryside, it wasn’t about high-end design but simple utility. One or two sign painters came through in the 1940s or 1950s and did all the signs — nothing special. But with their own minor idiosyncrasies in lettering, those sign painters “leave a trace,” Macartney said.