Profile: Max Clark
Posted on Tuesday, March 16th, 2021
Max Clark is a signpainter/designer/musician with 45 years in the trade. A career that began with hand lettering and screen printing now keeps him busy designing, doing digital prints, cut vinyl and making 3D signage. We talked about his work and his music in a conversation—interspersed with plenty of laughing:
400 sq. ft.
24-in. Graphtech / 15-in. Gerber envision plotter
Gerber Edge printer
When I first started my business in 1980, I did all the usual commercial sign work including a lot of hand-lettered signs. I lettered a considerable amount of tents for a manufacturing company and also painted huge banners for hot air balloons. I did a large number of these for many years. You never really know what you’re going to get into when in the sign business.
These days I work out of a small studio at home. Most of my work now is digital prints and cutout PVC 3-D signs. I don’t really have a specialty, just a nice variety including banners, 4x8s and vehicles—which is what most of us do. I outsource all my prints to another company, which works out well for me since I don’t have a big enough space for a larger printer.
Being a music pastor and a musician is a big part of my world. A lot of my work involves getting a band together and filling in for other worship pastors so that they can take a Sunday off to be with their families or to cover if someone is ill. I also play in a band around town during the summertime.
Most of my work is for small businesses and churches. I often run into sign projects in the churches where I do music. It’s kind of a cool niche because I really enjoy helping them with their signs. Smaller churches are often in need of updated signage or banners for special events.
I’ve done several signs using cutout PVC graphics on a background made of vinyl flooring. It’s ideal for interior signs and it’s easy to work with, too.
A way into the sign trade
As a kid, I was always attracted to letterforms. I was constantly drawing and outlining letters. In sixth grade, I had a friend who was a very good artist—especially for a sixth grader. I was challenged in this area and was very envious of his skill. I started copying his drawings, and eventually started to learn how to draw.
I’ve always thought God used him to inspire and encourage me. That was the beginning of things for me. However, it was always the lettering that fascinated me and I continued to work with letters.
After high school I went to college for commercial art, which I absolutely hated. We didn’t get to do any of the work I really wanted to be doing. I quit after a year. But I was introduced to calligraphy and was very intrigued, so I bought books and pens and started practicing.
About that time I took a job working for a real estate management company painting apartments. They also needed signs, so I figured I might be able to do that. I bought some brushes and paints and did a few For Rent signs. They were hideous, but the company still used them.
Later, the company needed a routed panel for a large directory sign. I was interested, so they told me to give it a try. There was a sign company about three blocks from my apartment, so I stopped by there with a big, 1-by-8-ft. clear fir plank to see if they could help me figure the job out.
From the moment I opened the shop door, it was like a moment from heaven. I could smell the paint and thinner, and there were beautiful, colorful signs leaning up against the walls, waiting to be picked up. It was a small shop but the place was buzzing with excitement. It was like God said, “This is what you’re going to do…” It was the craziest, most wonderful thing.
I met Bill Smith, who was the owner. They laid out the sign for me so that I could do the routing. I was about 25 at the time. I went to work for Bill the following summer and worked there for four years and then went out on my own. I will forever be grateful for my journey there.
Bill taught me how to letter small showcards—mostly because he hated doing them. I loved doing small lettering. He gave me a homemade brush box that had previously belonged to an old wall dog friend of his. The other sign painter was a woman from New Zealand who did incredible pictorials. I learned a lot from her as well. I learned how to do screen printing, work with acrylic sheet and became the official hand router (who would have thought!). I was elated!
When I saw my first SignCraft I was mesmerized. I studied the work of Chester Cunningham. When a new issue would arrive, I would live with it for weeks. It was perfect for someone like me. I loved letters and signs and while reading SignCraft, I met all of these other people like me. It got into my DNA.
When I went out on my own, I worked out of my garage for about five years before getting a warehouse where I set up shop. I had my own business in Salem, Oregon, for about 20 years. It was a one-man show, though I would sometimes hire somebody to help during the summer. It was a great experience.
What makes signs work
The design has to be right, so that’s where it has to start. I became a true believer in the late Mike Stevens’s approach [Mastering Layout, available from SignCraft] to sign layout. I went to one of his workshops in Portland, which was really inspiring. I loved his work and the results he got.
I used Mike’s approach as a guide in most of my work. You begin to think about foreground, middle ground and background, and how to work with the format you are given. It works for every sign.
The more things change…
Kelly and Max Clark
I have to laugh, because in some ways the business is very much the same as when I started. The customers are always asking things like, “Can you do this really cool scripty font on here?” It’s the same old stuff that you have to navigate!
I think playing music keeps me young at heart. I play acoustic guitar and bass, and I’m a lead singer. I get to play with a lot of young people and that’s good for me. I’ve been blessed with the ability to communicate well with people of all ages in the church. I love it and I love my life. It’s good!
—From an interview with Tom McIltrot/SignCraft.com