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InteriorsStudio Tour

Studio Tour: Better Letter Hand Painted Signs

by Kelli Kehler

and both spent their formative years enamored by graffiti artwork and bold color, probably then unaware of how the art style would one day inform their daily work — and connect them to each other in a joint collaborative with their equally talented wives.

The story of Portland, ME-based begins with Will, who was born and raised in Philadelphia. “I grew up writing graffiti and painting, with strong interest in art and design,” he shares. “When an artist residency opportunity brought me to Maine in 2010, I discovered that Maine suited me, and made it my home. Shortly after arriving in Maine, I started a small hand painted sign company, called . One of my first jobs was at a friend’s new brewery, Oxbow Brewing Company, painting murals in their brew barn and signage around the property.” Will then brought on his wife, fine artist , painter and muralist Ryan Adams, and his wife , a painter. They form a collaborative of independent artists, sign painters and muralists who have worked with one another for a number of years and recently decided to formalize the relationship under Better Letter this year.

Ryan, who was born and raised in Portland, shares, “I began my artistic journey by emulating the work from my comic books as a kid, but when I received the by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant at age 10, my life became consumed by bright colors and bending letter forms.”

Tessa dips into many other creative streams in addition to co-running Better Letter with Will, Ryan and Rachel. “I have discovered that I thrive on the day-to-day variety! I have an active studio practice that I try to give 20-30 hours a week. I occasionally work as an artist assistant to a local sculptor, which is a fascinating window into the world of material and dimension.”

Rachel came to Portland from the Boston area by way of her printmaking degree, which she graduated with from the Maine College of Art. “My mother is an artist and art teacher and my father is a writer so I grew up with a huge appreciation for colors and shapes and a love for textiles… Applying pattern to multiple surfaces excites me and I loved the repetitive nature of the process.”

All of these unique backgrounds — each of them deeply rooted in creativity — results in a dynamic portfolio at Better Letter, of which projects include , , , , and more. The collective spectrum of Will, Tessa, Ryan and Rachel’s collaborative work is undoubtedly the result of the group each nurturing their own individual art practices, and today we’re taking a peek into the respective studios of each artist. Tune in after the slide show below to find tips from these duos on how to successfully (and peaceably!) work with your spouse or partner.

Image above: Rachel, Ryan and daughter Zoe in their basement studio. “We had this idea that because we were having a baby we had to get a house and move further away from the city… maybe join a book club and take up extreme couponing,” Rachel jokes. “We rented a house just outside town when I was pregnant as a test run of what it would be like to be somewhat responsible for a house. It was a hot mess. The garden looked like Jurassic Park after about three months. So we decided to buy a multi-story town house and have the basement be our studio. We are still in close proximity to downtown and Ryan’s mom lives in the same complex (built-in childcare). It was kind of a no-brainer.”

Photography by  / @

(except where noted)

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An example of Better Letter’s lettering on glass work, photo of Rose Foods by .

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A full view of Ryan and Rachel’s basement studio space. They tell us, “After dating for a few months we came up with a five-year plan. Close to the top of the plan was to have a shared studio space that was split down the middle. It took us three years, and we couldn’t be more excited to start using the space.”

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Ryan’s side of the workspace. “I haven’t been going too large with my recent work,” he says, “so it was important for me to have an adjustable desk and a board to pin all of my half-finished drawings and
ideas.”

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shares, “My current work is inspired by a pure obsession for letters and incorporating the dynamic color schemes from my years as a graffiti artist to sign painting and fine art. Most recently I have been developing a style of work that breaks down letter forms geometrically and uses highlights and shadows to create movement and depth within the pieces. Outside of painting, I can be found at my desk waist-deep in Excel spreadsheets, as my day job as an Account Manager. Evenings away from job sites or studio time are spent with my wife, Rachel Gloria and my daughter Zoe.”

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A mural Ryan painted in Portland, ME titled “Greens.” Here, his lifelong fascination with graffiti and current exploration of using highlights and shadows to create movement is expertly translated.

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’s side. “It was important for me to have the flexibility to flip between painting and sewing. This desk is perfect for both and I am able to store my machine under the desk.”

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“Since I don’t have access to printing facilities, I’ve developed a way of painting that mimics what I love about printmaking,” Rachel says. “I’ve worked several odd jobs but have landed at Designtex for the last three years where I am currently a Project Manager.”

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An acrylic work on canvas by Rachel.

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Another piece by Rachel — acrylic on canvas — celebrates pattern, shape and color.

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Some of Ryan’s trusted paint colors.

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, founder of Better Letter Hand Painted Signs, in his garage studio. “One of my first jobs was at a friend’s new brewery, Oxbow Brewing Company, painting murals in their brew barn and signage around the property. My sign-painting company grew as the brewery grew, and a few years ago, Oxbow took me on as their art director. My fine art practice is closely tied to my sign painting practice. Instead of painting signs with legibility as the end goal, my paintings are signs that have been cut up and reassembled, stripping the signs of their content, and focusing more on the formal aspects of the art, such as color and composition. This is the primary work that I do in the studio.”

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“Hand painted sign sections lie in wait for assemblage,” Will notes.

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“The garage which became the studio, was in pretty bad disrepair,” Will explains. “The original builder had not included any eves on the roofline, so the rain water would run down the wall and eventually ran down the inside of the siding, rotting away the framing. We ended up rebuilding a lot of the structure, one wall at a time, raising the ceiling 30 inches, and shimming out studs to a deeper depth to allow for more room for insulation. When all was done we had given the building a new roof, new floor, eliminated a garage door, added electric and heating, insulated, dry walled, painted. One cool moment during the build-out happened while demo’ing the ceiling sheathing. Upon pulling down the material we discovered an old hand painted billboard, that has been cut up and repurposed architecturally. Knowing that the new studio would be used to hand paint signs, and work on my cut signs assemblages, discovering these felt like a real sign — literally and figuratively — that the garage had good juju, and we were right in the right place at the right time.”

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A completed work by Will, “At Fault,” 35″ x 24″ oil enamel on wood assemblage.

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“Waist Deep,” 42’’ x 42’’ oil enamel on wood assemblage by Will.

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Will’s work, with its bold colors and curving type, is indeed reminiscent of graffiti forms. Detail of an assemblage titled “Limited Time Only.”

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in her studio. “I grew up in rural coastal Maine, and despite living in a handful of other states over the years, I have always felt most connected to and most at home in Maine. I moved back to the state in 2004, and have been firmly rooted in the Portland area ever since. I am a self-employed artist, and end up wearing several different hats to piece this life together.”

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A completed work by Tessa, “Show House,” dye, graphite, acrylic, oil, and enamel on panel.

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A piece by Tessa from her “” series.

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A mural Tessa completed in the East Bayside neighborhood of Portland, ME.

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Tessa shares, “In my fine art, I have great respect for the history of painting, and am endlessly interested in technique, color, and the surface. I am also excited about the expanded field of painting, work that blurs the line between sculpture and painting, and work that engages a community beyond the gallery or studio walls. I love the potential that murals have to act as visual billboards, displaying a large-scale painting, whether abstract or representational, with the same prominence as a large sign. While painting can be a very solitary act, I like to think of ways to bring others into my practice, and connect with
the world around me through my art.”

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When she’s working on her individual art practice, Tessa works from her studio that she shares with another painter on the second floor of Fort Andross Mill Complex in Brunswick, Maine. “I had a show coming up that I needed to make 10 large paintings for, and I was on the hunt for a space where I could spread out. Being familiar with the Fort studios, I knew that spaces rarely vacated. As luck would have it, a woman that I knew through mutual friends reached out and asked if I would be interested in splitting a space with her. We were initially shown a larger space on the parking lot side, which we were thrilled about, but it would not be available until June. We were offered a smaller space on the river side for the month of May, while we waited for our permanent space to open up. As soon as we moved into the smaller space, we were in love! The huge double windows give us beautiful daytime light and sunsets in the evening, and the river is a constant source of inspiration. We stayed.”

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“While I do work with textiles and other materials, this space is basically just for painting with oils and acrylics. I do have a tendency to fill spaces, and I wanted to keep this studio on the minimal side,” Tessa says.

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A wall painting project Better Letter Hand Painted Signs completed for Portland Oyster Shop, photo by Better Letter.

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A colorful painted vehicle for Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, ME showcases the expert craftsmanship of Better Letter, photo by Better Letter.

Tips on working with a partner or spouse

  • Have fun! (it’s working with your best friend)
  • Don’t shy away from being honest; the greatest respect is shown by holding the other person to their best ability.
  • Realize that most artistic pursuits demand making stuff that doesn’t work out right away, so be patient and understanding of the necessary failures involved in the pursuit of success.
  • Go on dates; leave the work environment aside from time to time and remember to celebrate the other sides to life together.
  • Learn from their strengths. Chances are, they’re incredibly badass at something that you’re not.
  • Don’t bottle up feelings. Have an open line of communication.
  • Unfiltered honesty is the best policy. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, and it is always best to express those opinions in an uplifting and productive way.
  • Be aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses — it will help a lot in figuring out how to tackle certain problems.
  • Learn how to duly note and properly disregard criticism if you are confident in your direction.
  • Always keep in mind that you are on the same team with the same dream, so individual success is a success for the team.
  • Establish a lead for each project, and let that person have the final say.
    Be specific when you ask for creative feedback.
  • Establish boundaries. Don’t ask for the other’s opinion on new work when it is just emerging.
  • Keep a sense of humor, and remember how fortunate you are to share this interest and
    passion!
  • Agree that it is okay to mutually neglect household chores when you are both in the throws of a deadline.
  • Stay open to learning from your partner.

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