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Retired Signmaker Finds Post-Career Opportunity as Mentor

With the creation of “Sign Camp,” John Mearns offers a hands-on education to young sign pros.

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From left to right: Nat Uduwela, Nat Iosbaker, John Mearns, Heath Clark and Noor Salim. Photo courtesy of John Mearns

After four decades in the sign industry, John Mearns is giving back to the trade he knows all too well.

Mearns – who in 2019 sold the company he founded and ran for 35 years, SignSource Inc. in Orange, CA – wasn’t sure what he would do with his time after the sale, but he did know he was eager to build and paint with his own two hands again.

That hankering stemmed from having spent much of the previous 20 years behind his desk instead of on the shop floor. As SignSource grew and added more employees to keep up with the demands of larger projects, Mearns was intimately involved in overseeing the work but not building or painting himself.

He grew to miss the hands-on aspect of the trade, and since retiring, has been spending more quality time with his paintbrush while sharing what he knows with anyone who’s willing to learn.

In the summer of 2022, he met four such people at Northwest MuralFest, a mural-painting event about two hours from his home in Sisters, OR. There he befriended Heath Clark, Nat Iosbaker, Noor Salim and Natalie “Nat” Uduwela, all of whom graduated from the sign graphics program at Los Angeles Trade Technical College this month.

“In speaking to these students, I realized that much of the knowledge I have about building and running a successful sign business might benefit them,” Mearns said. “You learn a lot that nobody really cares about in 35 years of owning a business, but these people were hungry to hear about it.”

Mearns then hatched up an idea to bring the four students, all in their early-30s, under his wing to make a sign project, jokingly pledging to them that the experience would be something “like spring break band camp for signpainters.” He decided to call it “Sign Camp.”

In practical terms, the goal was to provide hands-on instruction in the way of pricing, planning, design and fabrication, while also teaching them the business aspects of running a sign manufacturing operation.

First, though, Mearns needed to find a project that was big enough to pay the students’ way to travel from Los Angeles to central Oregon, yet small enough to be completed in one week during their spring break. After securing a project from a small business near his home, the game was on.

Master Class

Mearns hosted the first-ever Sign Camp almost two months ago in Sisters, a quiet community in central Oregon where he and his wife, Cynthia Best, have settled down to enjoy retirement life. Over six days, he and the four signpainters from LATTC built and installed two 9-ft. by 20-ft. handpainted wooden signs for a local business called Sisters Movie House & Café. Mearns donated his time to the job to keep costs down for the client.

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Photo courtesy of John Mearns

The project was familiar territory for Nat Iosbaker, who started a signpainting business in Long Beach in 2014, but working with Mearns so closely opened his eyes to a new way of approaching a job like this.

“I was most struck by the level of planning,” Iosbaker says of Mearns’ instruction. “From the macro level of communicating on permitting, pricing and the client’s needs, to the minutiae of installing and mounting the sign, the hardware needed and the safety equipment. It was obvious that John’s overall knowledge in the area came not just from years of skilled experience but from a continual and meticulous focus on quality, process and a love for signmaking.”

Noor Salim, who moved to Los Angeles from the Bay Area specifically for the sign graphics program at LATTC, also came away from Sign Camp with an expanded view of the trade than what she could see from the classroom.

“John taught me a broader definition of signmaking – that there are endless possibilities in this industry when you start thinking about fabrication and large-scale installations,” Salim said. “He’s been so incredibly generous with his knowledge and advice when it comes to running a business, selling signs, pricing them, etc.”

With Iosbaker and Salim both having graduated from the sign graphics program at LATTC this past semester, they are looking forward to making their own marks in the field.

Salim is currently working at Signograph USA, a downtown Los Angeles shop that makes dimensional, neon and handpainted signs. She says she’ll also pursue freelance work to paint signs and murals for local businesses.

Iosbaker says he plans to “further investigate the intentions and voice of my signpainting business,” though he will continue to focus on signs for local companies while mixing in some large-scale commercial work. “I ask now who my dream client is, what is in line with my business and what is not, and how I can provide my community with the best quality of signs I can make,” he adds. You can view his portfolio at natiosbaker.com and on Instagram (@natiosbaker).

As for the future of Sign Camp, Mearns is working to secure another project. He says he’s been heartened by the enthusiasm that his local community and signpainter friends have shown for Sign Camp, and holding another only comes down to finding the “right opportunity and the right people.”

If Mearns’ initiative has piqued your curiosity about mentoring young sign pros, you can contact him directly at (714) 615-6080 or john@yknotranch.net and he’ll be happy to share what it took to set up and run Sign Camp.

PHOTO GALLERY (15 IMAGES)
Photography provided by John Mearns

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