IN THE 1950S, 1960s, AND 1970s, my father made his living painting advertisements on the exterior walls of buildings in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was a sign painter, the type of sign man who hoisted himself into the air on a narrow scaffold, sometimes 60 or 70 feet above the pavement, to cover the wall of a seven- or eight-story building with adverts for breweries, exterminators, cars, and meat companies. He was a wall dog.
He died in 2011. About five years before that, I had the foresight to interview him about his days on the scaffold. About three years ago, I began drafting an essay about him and the wall signs that are rare today, mostly fading, peeling relics called ghost walls. I stalled out on the project for various reasons, but recently resumed work on it.
I am a linear writer. I prefer to draft a piece by starting with the first sentence, getting that in some sort of workable shape, then moving on to sentence two.
This is how the essay begins. At least, how the initial draft begins:
Allow me, please, to make a claim: In the 1950s and 1960s, my father, whom you have never heard of, was one of the most-viewed painters in America. Audiences for his work far exceeded audiences for some of the biggest art shows in New York, Paris, or London. I have data, I have what corporate legal departments call claim support. For example: The official headcount of people who attended a special showing on October 7, 1961 of some of my father's newly restored work was 32,589. The first viewing of several of his new paintings the year before drew 30,075 fans in less than five hours. That particular show was on exhibit 77 days over a six-month period and attracted 663,486 patrons of the arts. By comparison, in 1995–96, the 70-day Vermeer show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. drew only 327,551.
This obscure painter known to his family, for lost reasons, as Chill, whose real name was Charles Keiger and who trained at the Art Academy of Cincinnati starting in 1947, worked on a large scale in those days. Some of his paintings in the 1960 and '61 shows measured 30 feet by 60 feet. As you might imagine, paintings of such dimensions and audiences of such number required exhibition space of unusual size, and my father had it: Crosley Field, then the home of the Cincinnati Reds. My dad was a wall dog—a pictorial sign painter who routinely hoisted himself 60, 70, 80 feet in the air on a narrow scaffold to paint massive advertisements on the sides of buildings, or, once a year, on the scoreboard and outfield walls of a baseball stadium. A single sign might cover the entire exterior wall of a ten-story warehouse or brick office building. He once painted a portrait of a beer hall girl for a local brewery. Her face was 12 feet from chin to widow's peak.