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Love of lettering

Roy Foster was 18 years old when he caught the sign painting bug. As Foster watched a painter who worked for Broyles Signs letter ice boxes with the word “ICE,” he thought to himself, “I’d like to do that.”
And so he did.
“I started out working with Felix Signs of Kingsport,” Foster said, “where I cleaned toilets and dug post holes.”
His career with that company was interrupted, however, with service in the U.S. Army and a stint in Korea. But even during his time in the Army, Foster continued to hone his craft.
He received a certificate of achievement for his sign painting from the commanding general for painting signs on base at Fort Knox, Ky.
“I had hoped that might keep me in the states,” he said. “But just a few weeks later, I ended up in Korea.”
Foster spent a year there and didn’t get to do any painting during that time. No sooner than his feet hit American soil, he returned to his love of lettering.
Foster also returned to his native Jonesborough where he started painting signs in earnest. He founded Foster Sign Co. in 1977, with 16 years of experience already under his belt.
Foster never studied typography or calligraphy. Self-taught, he credits the influence of some really good sign painters who helped him along the way.
Creating signage, like a lot of other things, has changed a great deal, Foster says. Where sign companies now use wraps and digital applications, in Foster’s day, they used “One Shot” enamel, paintbrushes and yardsticks.
“Used to, years ago, if you started out with a sign, you started out with a piece of paper and pencil, whether it was for a window or a letter 20 feet high,” Foster recalls. “It could be dangerous work, working up on those signs so high up. Sign painters would use ropes to pull their scaffolding up 50-70 feet and then work up there using their hand-drawn to-scale artwork as their guide.”
Teetering sky high, they laid out their designs with a pencil and a yardstick, Foster says, using a one-inch to one-foot scale.
One of the largest jobs Foster remembers doing was for So-Pak Company in Greene County.
“We did the two letters – S, P – on a roof in Greeneville,” he said. “The letters were 30 feet high and 60 feet long. They took a picture of it out of an airplane and it looked like they were a quarter inch high. When you do something like that, you have to lay it out in three foot squares because you literally can’t tell what you’re doing.”
Foster worked “anywhere anybody needed a sign,” traveling as far as 100 miles. At one time, he recalls, the company had 15 billboards in Tazewell, Va.
Foster’s business flourished although his success depended primarily on word of mouth.
“When I first started, we didn’t have a telephone and didn’t get one for five years,” he said. “Nobody worked for me and I worked seven days a week. I had more work than I could do.”
Though he never considered himself an artist, Foster’s sign painting expertise kept the jobs coming.
“A lot of sign painters could draw, but I never could,” Foster said. “I could reproduce art and I can draw a letter from here to the highway, but I can’t draw a picture.”
Foster painted signs – thousands, he estimates – for 20 years. He painted them on billboards, vehicles and buildings.
Even though the process was simpler then, it was very time consuming.
“Somebody would come in and want lettering on a truck. I would sketch it out and that would take all day,” he said. “Now they can come in and be gone in an hour. There is no limit to what a computer will do and it’s perfect.”
Comparatively speaking, Foster said, his handwork certainly wasn’t perfect.
“You learn to look at letters and space them by eye,” he said. “But most people don’t look that closely. With hand lettering, you could make small mistakes and most people would never notice it.”
Foster, who has been retired since age 55, now enjoys fishing, spending time with his wife, Margie, of 51 years, and the rest of his family and doing pretty much whatever he wants. His son, Tom, continues to run Foster Signs.
The company’s patriarch says he doesn’t miss the daily routine of a going to a job although he thoroughly enjoyed what he did for a living.
“I enjoyed doing something different every day,” Foster said. “I loved it with a purple passion and I couldn’t wait to go to work every day. There’s not many people who can say that.”
Perhaps that is why, every now and then, he pulls out his paintbrushes and still enjoys practicing his art. He maintains a workshop at his home and stays busy working on projects “about every couple of weeks.”
“Once you learn how to do it you never forget it,” he said. “It’s like riding a bicycle. You can pick up that brush every six months, but you still know how to do it.”
Now 73, Foster’s most recent work of art is displayed on the front windows of the soon-to-be-opened Jonesborough General Store and Eatery in the historic district.
“The hand-lettering is just more authentic,” store co-owner Dean Chesnut said. “It just wouldn’t do to have vinyl lettering on these windows.”
Chesnut is just one of countless customers Foster has served over his long career and he says making them happy has always been important to him.
“When you’re in business you have to appreciate your customers,” he said. “They’re everything. It doesn’t matter if they’re 15 or 50. You need to treat them like you’d like to be treated.”