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  • Artwork from "Oaxaca," a book by Jeff Canham and photographer Kanoa Zimmerman (2014)  
  • Canham works on an onsite mural at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, CA (Photo by Brooke Duthie)  
  • Promotional art for Jack Johnson (Venice Beach, CA)  
  • Good Magazine, 2010  
  • Untitled, 2011  
  • Surfboard laminates for Mollusk Surf Shop  
  • Santa Cruz Farmer's Market (Santa Cruz, CA)  
  • Artwork for the Kagiya Building (Hamamatsu, Japan)

04/14/15 Artist & Sign Painter Jeff Canham

While most people simply follow signs to a destination, Jeff Canham found a universe of expression within them. A former art director at Surfer magazine, Canham already had a good sense for typography. But it wasn’t until a move to San Francisco in 2005 and a job hand painting signs that letter-based art would offer quite the visual journey.

Since his years working at New Bohemia Signs in Folsom, Canham has enjoyed many creative detours along the way. Beyond adorning surf shops and farmers markets with his succulent, sea-inspired lettering, he’s designed t-shirts for Patagonia, contributed editorial art to Good and Paper, and made posters for bands like Pavement.

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No matter his meandering across mediums, the man hasn’t stopped spotting signs. Last year, Canham published Oaxaca, an art book inspired by a trip he and photographer Kanoa Zimmerman took to the sign culture-rich Mexican City. After exhibiting works from the book in Sydney last month, Canham talked to NOUS about the lure of SF, his collaborative workspace, and how having English teachers as parents might have influenced his fidelity to the painted word.

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Your specialization in hand painted signs is interesting considering you took computer science for a while. While you could have gone a more digital route, you wound up learning letterpress design.

My parents are both English teachers so I was raised with an appreciation for books. My dad collected rare books and was as interested in the printing and illustration as he was in the literary content. I’m sure some of that rubbed off on me.

I also grew up in Hawaii and I think some of the type that I’m interested in and a lot of the color palettes that I use are a direct reflection of that. There’s a lot of playful novelty type used in older Hawaiian graphic design especially in the tourist industry and I love all of that stuff.

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You also worked at Surfer magazine in Orange County for a while. How did you get involved with this publication?

Growing up in Hawaii, surfing is a part of the lifestyle. I subscribed to Surfer magazine as a kid. I remember distinctly when David Carson took over as art director and the radical shift that the magazine took. His book, The End of Print, was one of my textbooks in college, so when I had the opportunity to work at Surfer, it was a dream come true for me.

What spurred your move to San Francisco then? Was there anything in the city design-wise that called out to you?

San Francisco just felt like a better fit for me. In Orange County, I was working on a monthly magazine and as fun as it could be, it was also grueling and relentless. Most of the people I knew in San Francisco had these lifestyles where they were working on independent projects, having art shows, going surfing, traveling, and being their own bosses. So after five years, I quit Surfer and moved to San Francisco to figure out how to make that kind of lifestyle for myself.

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Why was hand painted signage of particular interest to you—was there something about the art that offered a new way of going about things?

I kind of fell into sign painting by accident. I was interested in typography and I was making some artwork that was letter-based, but the way I was going about it was all self-taught. When I stumbled upon New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco, I knew that I wanted to get involved. I wanted to learn how to paint letters the traditional way, but I was also new to the city and just wanted to expose myself to new things and meet new people. I ended up loving it and worked there for over five years. They taught me everything I know about painting signs and I still go to them with any questions I may have.

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Can you share an anecdote or two about some memorable projects?

I got to recreate a large-scale Margaret Kilgallen painting for the MOCA in Los Angeles. It was an honor because she was and is one of my favorites. The wall that I painted was a different size and differently proportioned than the original wall she painted so I had to alter the work and still maintain its character. That was challenging, but they had amazing reference material, original photos, and even swatches of the paint she used, which was all really exciting for me to see.

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How diverse are your influences and sources of inspiration when you decide to take on a project?

I live in a tiny house with way too many books, I take lots of photos, I keep sketchbooks and notebooks, as well as folders on my computer of design—all the illustration and lettering that I like. So if I need a reference or inspiration, there’s no shortage. The San Francisco Public Library also has an excellent collection of books on lettering and design, so that’s a great resource.

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You’re also part of the Woodshop, a workspace where you and three other artisans—Luke Bartels, Josh Duthrie, and Danny Hess—get to create and show your stuff. What’s the atmosphere like?

We’ve all collaborated with each other on different projects. I’ve done design work for everyone in the shop. Luke and I made those birdhouses and Danny and I just made the first prototype for a new surfboard model. We’ve talked a lot about all of us collaborating on a project, but everyone is busy and it’s really hard to find time in our varied schedules to all focus on a single task.

There’s no shortage of ideas being thrown around at the Woodshop. The hardest part is just sorting through all the bad ones. At one point there was a list on the chalkboard for all the our ideas. It was broken down into two columns: “money making” and “money losing.” Both were full.

Could you talk about what drew you to Oaxaca and how you discovered this as a Mecca for distinctive sign design? 

I took a trip to Puerto Vallarta in 2014 and got really excited about all the wonderful hand painted signs I saw there. I kept wanting to stop and take pictures of them, but I was there for work and couldn’t slow everyone else down. I decided that I wanted to go back on my own to see all these great signs. I proposed the idea to a photographer friend, Kanoa Zimmerman, and he was game.

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We initially wanted to go to Acapulco, but it didn’t seem safe so we decided on Oaxaca. Neither of us had ever been there, but it came highly recommended so we did some research and it seemed like a great fit. There’s also great surf in Oaxaca so that helped. There are some really talented sign painters in Oaxaca and I left feeling very inspired. To be fair, though, there are great sign painters everywhere I’ve travelled in Mexico.  

Any upcoming projects you’re excited about or plans to dip into other mediums through your design? 

I’m in negotiations to bring the show to Oaxaca, which would be really cool. Fingers crossed. I’m also working on another large-scale painting at Facebook. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever attempted so that’s pretty exciting. Daunting, but exciting.

I don’t think I’ve got any new mediums in the mix, but I made a font recently, which I haven’t done in a long time, so it feels new again.

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