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2021 Virtual Sign Invitational Preview

Tales of imagination, craft and the big ones that didn’t get away.




Vote for Your Favorite Fish!

Like last year, the judging for this year’s competition is online here.

Catch a live interview with and ask your questions of the participants in one of the sessions to be offered at the ISA 2021 Sign Invitational – Virtual, April 9 at 1:50 p.m. EDT

Cast your vote by April 13. The winner will be announced on April 15 on

IMAGINE FAMOUS MOVIE-TRAILER narrator Don LaFontaine thundering, “In a world where sign professionals are pushed to the limit to satisfy their customers … these signmakers cast their lines beyond those barriers to fashion the ultimate in creativity for … the Sign Invitational.” A bit of a whopper, perhaps, but not as exaggerated as some sea stories.

Now in its sixth year, the Sign Invitational, a friendly competition among sign artists, offers several purposes for its participants, according to founders and organizers Dan Sawatzky of Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada) and Jim Dawson of Synergy Sign & Graphics (Strasburg, OH):

  • To encourage creative individuals to create imaginative samples for their own showrooms.
  • To encourage participants to learn new techniques and experiment with new materials.
  • To showcase the creativity of the participants both online and in print through our partnership with the Signs of the Times.
  • To encourage and lift up the sign industry.
  • And last, but not least, to have fun!
Matt Marriott Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada) | Dan Sawatzky Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada)

Matt Marriott Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada) || Dan Sawatzky Imagination Corp. (Chilliwack, BC, Canada)
First-time entrant Matt Marriott was mentored by Sign Invitational co-founder and winner of previous competitions, Dan Sawatzky.

The 2021 Sign Invitational attracted eight entrants (including one couple). Some competitors were first-timers, while others have participated before, with the founders having faced-off in every previous iteration:


We asked them details about their entries, how they brought their ideas to fruition, why they participated and more.


Jim Dawson Synergy Sign & Graphics (Strasburg, OH) || Cam Andres Multiwerks/Trail Creek Automation (Nevis, AB, Canada)


Every Sign Invitational involves a theme and this year’s was “go fish.” Each entry also had to be single-sided, no larger than 2 x 2 ft. and able to be wall-mounted – so that, win or lose, each entry could easily be displayed in the competitor’s shop. The smaller build envelope was intended to encourage more participation – and, boy, did it!

“The concept proved to be merely a starting point, as is often the case,” Sawatzky said. “As I began the sculpting, I decided it would be cool to make it a ‘woody’… I decided to create a lionfish with the fins being wooden planks. The background piece became a wooden barrel, furthering the wood and metal elements. The lettering ‘go fish’ [was located on] the barrel stand, which will make the piece able to be displayed on a shelf, rather than hung on a wall. Wall space is at a premium in our studio.” He’s not kidding; Imagination Corp. already has many more than 100 similar pieces already on display.

Marriott, who works with Sawatzky, thought immediately of a shark. “He loves welding steel and the possibilities using the plasma cutter are unlimited, so that determined how he would construct the piece,” Sawatzky said on Marriott’s behalf. True to the atmosphere in the shop, Marriott decided on a humorous theme based on longtime-boss Dan: a rickety “Discount Dan’s Shark Diving’” piece, largely made from plasma-cut steel.

Invitational co-founder Jim Dawson used Latin for “go fish,” and veteran competitor Cam Andres went with the ancient Runes alphabet (above).


Always looking for a competitive edge, “go fish” led Dawson into a mermaid theme, “because my daughter loves mermaids and I figured most people would use some sort of regular fish theme,” he said. “I wanted it to be a little different, so we built a mirror that was salvaged from a shipwreck and enchanted by mermaids.”

Andres had been looking for an excuse to do a project using the ancient Runes alphabet and to get carried away with an ancient bronze effect on the symbols. “The theme of ‘go fish’ is about as ancient as you can get,” he said, “so I created the fictitious ‘Ostment Lure Co.’ and off I went making symbols and lures.” The Gibbs also felt the allure of this year’s theme and created a whimsical sign commissioned by “the imaginary owner of Go Fish Hooks & Lures, a frog-owned establishment,” Rusty Gibbs said.

Wilde decided to make her project an homage to Las Vegas, as the Invitational was supposed to have been held there during this year’s ISA Sign Expo, home of the first four invitationals, and so hers features gambling, fishing, creatures of the sea and an exotic location. “My entry reminds us to always have a good story!” Wilde said.

Not every competitor was hooked by this year’s theme – at least not right away. Freid reported that it was hard to have to settle on just one idea, and Flint admitted, “When the theme for this year’s competition was announced, my first concepts just didn’t excite me.” Then he felt the strike of inspiration – the idea of “an intergalactic Victorian Adventurer (who is also a fish)” – and he knew he was onto something.

Gibbs and Nancy

Amanda & Rusty Gibbs Gibbs Graphics (Leavenworth, WA) || Nancy Wilde (Vernon, BC, Canada)
Defending champs Amanda and Rusty Gibbs were lured by this year’s theme while Nancy Wilde paid tribute to Las Vegas.


“I try not to track the hours too closely on projects like this, but I would say I came in above 100 hours,” Flint said of his time spent, though that was “well under previous Sign Invitational entries” for him. Freid sarcastically estimated investing “maybe 743 hours thinking and changing my mind and thinking some more. oy.” Marriott, in his first competition, put 25 hours into his piece, each of those challenging to find, as his household just recently welcomed a new baby girl.

The smaller build also helped other previous competitors Sawatzky, Andres, the Gibbs and Dawson to complete their projects in less time than before. Sawatzky estimated his took 50 hours, as it was “the simplest design I’ve done to date.” Sixty total hours were required of both members of Team Gibbs – “We try not to set expectations for fun projects like this; we prefer to get lost in the flow!” – and Andres, who said, “this one isn’t as extreme” as his 2019 entry. “Typically, we spend about 100 man-hours on a piece,” Dawson reported. “This one being a smaller format took us less time – about 70 hours.”

Wilde marked the time by watching (listening to?) a number of miniseries on Netflix and more. “Since January I have come home from work at two o’clock and worked in the shop till six and then weekends as well,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful project to have when so much is restricted because of COVID.”


When it came to the main obstacles, “Time is always an issue,” Flint said. “This was an after-hours project, so any time spent on it came from family and sleep time.” Building a miniature smoke machine was also new for Flint. “Although the device isn’t complex, fitting it, along with power and remote control created some challenges,” he said, adding, “It also took some work to tune and adjust.” For Andres, “Finding time is usually a challenge,” he said, “but this hasn’t been the case this year as I have managed to slip this project into a lull between others.”

Speaking on behalf of Marriott, Sawatzky said, “Normally, Matt works with others in a collaborative fashion and hasn’t done a lot of projects on his own from concept through to finish. Settling on a single idea and not overthinking the project was a definite challenge for Matt.” And speaking for himself, Sawatzky reported that – no surprise – much about the past year has been unusual. “Supplies, at times, have been a little hard to come by,” he said.

“Routing wood-grain texture into three sides of an object could have been tricky,” Rusty Gibbs said. “We ended up routing just one side, and hand-carved wood-grain texture on the other two sides. That made it more fun, too!”

True to the nature of the Sign Invitational, a number of entrants experimented with materials and techniques with which they had little or no previous experience, as was the case for Wilde’s working with epoxy. “I had a definite learning curve with the pour,” she said. “I felt pretty good about what I had poured until I saw the beginning of what would be major leaking on my channel letters.”

Dawson had to overcome video issues to play them in portrait orientation, as well as working with two-way plexiglass mirror. “We [also] had to develop a convincing method for making durable algae to apply to our piece, as well,” he added. As for Freid, “I don’t do a lot of the meshes and 3D designs in [SAi’s] EnRoute,” she said. “I am not sure if I got smarter or if EnRoute just got easier, but what a breeze, making things work with EnRoute.”

Both Mo Flint and Janey Freid invested significant time up front to settle on the ideas for their respective projects.

Both Mo Flint and Janey Freid (above) invested significant time up front to settle on the ideas for their respective projects.


Experimentation often generates results in the form of new skills from fresh experiences. “We’ve learned more about copper leaf and how to glaze coats on top of it to create more interest,” Amanda Gibbs said. Along the same lines, across the country, “We developed a few new glazing methods and 3D-printed a few elements,” Dawson said.

Flint said he learned more about Clapton coils for his smoke generator than he ever would have otherwise. “I’ve also been working on color in my pieces, both in design and application,” he said. “Like form, the color has to read well and serve the story. Also, with multiple coats of paint and glazes, the color changes as it is developed. It’s so important to build on a good foundation in order to bring it all together in the end.”

Janey Freid, Atlas Signs and Plaques (Delta, CO) | Mo Flint, Atomic Barn Studios (Willow Spring, NC)

Janey Freid Atlas Signs and Plaques (Delta, CO) || Mo Flint Atomic Barn Studios (Willow Spring, NC)

Andres picked up a new technique for making HDU look like ancient bronze. “It’s been really well-received by other signmakers,” he said. “I learned that every tiny gap or hole is fair game for the epoxy to leak out,” Wilde said, referencing her principal obstacle. “In the end I was pleased with the results and definitely learned from the attempt.”

Not every lesson is one of technique. “I have learned to look at what I normally do and to look outside the box,” Freid said. “It’s easy to get in a rut, so forcing myself to look at other avenues really pushed me.” And for the veteran Sawatzky, “As always, a high-end creative sample will be created for our studio,” he said. “Interacting with some of the other competitors is a huge benefit and a lot of fun.”


Speaking of which, “I don’t know that I want to accomplish anything other than to have fun,” Wilde said. “I appreciate the support and encouragement of Cam Andres and Jim Dawson, who said I should enter. The 2021 Sign Invitational is definitely a highlight of my 40 years of signmaking.”

Freid called the Sign Invitational “a kick in the butt to make something different than what I normally do,” she said, wishing there were a competition every month. “It is fun to grow and learn new things,” Freid said. “I think I will just keep looking at the Dan Sawatzkys and the Mo Flints with awe, but will probably have to stick to using machines and software to do the sculpting for me.”

You can compete in next year's competition. Check for the theme, deadlines and more!

You can compete in next year’s competition. Check for the theme, deadlines and more!


Marriott hopes for an “awesome display piece … that is his vision from start to finish,” said Sawatzky, his mentor, who personally hopes this year’s contest will encourage and inspire others to become involved in next year.

“I just enjoy having a good excuse to make a piece for my shop showroom that I know I would otherwise not,” Andres said. “The friendly competition is great and even though we won’t have a chance to meet in person [for the judging], I do look forward to hooking up with friends from past competitions and meeting new friends.” The sentiment is echoed by Amanda Gibbs, whose goal was to connect with like-minded signmakers and end up with a great piece for their showroom.

“The Sign Invitational provides a forum for us to share our work with a larger audience and to push ourselves to be better,” Flint said. “It also creates an excuse to connect and bond with others who are also pushing themselves. Oh, did I mention that it’s a lot of fun and we end up with a great sample to show our work?”

“Above all, we love seeing everyone’s entries,” Dawson concluded. “The creativity displayed in this competition every year inspires us all to take more chances and create things that push the sign industry forward.”




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