Deliciousness Is in the Details

Saturday, August 24, 2013
Hotandhot1-webIn food, as in art, architecture, and a ton of other fields, details matter. Details add character and flavor and separate the unique from the ordinary. By paying close attention to every minute aspect of the dining experience, Hot and Hot Fish Club has become a leader in Birmingham's culinary scene, and its chef, Chris Hastings, has become an ambassador for Birmingham and Alabama food nationally.

Hot and Hot's $30 Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu is a seamless procession of flavor, beginning with one I was tasting for the first time: an appetizer of roasted bone marrow--served in the bone--with grilled croutons and an herb salad (pictured at top). The bone marrow was tangy and earthy--a perfect complement to the more bitter herbs that were so fresh and green that they had to have been picked just hours earlier. The entree was a pirlou--a dish reminiscent of risotto from the Low Country of South Carolina--served with mussels and Alabama's own Gulf shrimp and Conecuh County sausage. It was rich and velvety smooth. The dessert course brought Hot and Hot's version of peaches and cream--a creamy, milky panna cotta with peaches prepared two ways and a bit of almond shortbread. It provided a light, elegant finale for an amazing end-of-summer dinner.

Hotandhot2-webHot and Hot also pays attention to details in other ways. Food is artfully displayed on plates made by a potter in Leeds. Lighting and furniture were created specifically for the space. And then there is the restaurant's bustling main dining room and open kitchen. When you visit, take a look at the colorful, patterned tile floor--an eye-grabbing piece of the past. Originally, the restaurant's building, tucked away beneath the 1930s Highland Plaza shopping center, housed the Plaza Grill. For most of the 1950s, it was Caddell's Creamery (or Caddell's Highland Plaza Restaurant), a popular soda shop and burger joint. When Chef Hastings took over the space in the 1990s, after the space had served as the legendary Upside Down Plaza nightclub, he preserved the vintage floor and other features of the building during renovations. (Incidentally, the legacy of Caddell's Creamery survives today in Birmingham in the form of the Jack's restaurant chain and Hamburger Heaven, both founded by Jack Caddell, who grew up working in his family's restaurants.)

Between its setting and its creative, delicious food, Hot and Hot Fish Club offers a rewarding dining experience. Don't miss an opportunity to feast on the details.

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Happiness Is a Pork Belly Biscuit

Friday, August 23, 2013
PorkBellyBiscuit-webThe end of Birmingham Restaurant Week 2013 this Sunday brings a tinge of sadness. Will I ever see this pork belly biscuit and marinated peach salad again?

This dish, which is Urban Standard's $10 lunch menu for Restaurant Week, is happiness on a plate. That's how my cousin Rob and I felt eating it, anyway. The salad combined greens with onion, a white cheese (possibly goat), and lush summer peaches lightly spiced with cinnamon (I think)--an unexpected and very appetizing flavor combination. That paired perfectly with the pork belly biscuit. The pork landed somewhere between bacon and country ham on the savory spectrum, and it was topped with a sweet peach-tomato chutney on one of Urban Standard's big, hearty biscuits.

If, in the future, I had a choice between this pork belly biscuit and one of Urban Standard's legendary cupcakes, I think I'd have to go with the biscuit. It was that satisfying.

A visit to Urban Standard is an opportunity to glimpse two stages of Birmingham's history. Its building was constructed in the early 1900s when 2nd Avenue North was a hotspot for development, with brick stores, restaurants, and boarding houses replacing wooden houses. Several of the merchants along this block catered to farmers coming into town, selling feed and seed and agricultural supplies. For several years, the area directly behind Urban Standard served as a yard for wagons and included a blacksmith. In 1915, the building housed Baltimore Tailors and Murray Brothers, which sold groceries, meats, and feed.

Fast forward a century, and 2nd Avenue North is vibrant once again. Urban Standard helped to kick off that revitalization when it opened in 2007, and today it is a--well, standard--stop for loft dwellers, downtown workers, the creative crowd, and anyone who wants a comfortable spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and something good to eat.

The blocks surrounding Urban Standard are a veritable gallery of fading ads, many of which are featured in my book. Starting next month, I'll be leading walking tours to see these signs and discuss the history of the area in collaboration with LIV Birmingham. Stay tuned to this blog for details on how you can take part!

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Historic Flavor

Friday, August 23, 2013

The entranceway at Bistro 218 retains a terrazzo floor from the building's turn as a Hanover shoe store from about 1967 to 1976.

A visit to Bistro 218, the French-inspired restaurant on 20th Street downtown, is like a step back in time. That feeling may owe something to the fact that the restaurant is housed in a building that is reported to date back to 1873--just two years after the city's founding. Over the decades, its roof has sheltered a boarding house, barber shop, candy store, jewelry store, and a shoe store. (Be sure to click the "History" link on the restaurant's site for a fun trip through the building's timeline.)

When Bistro 218 owner Tom Saab began renovating the building last year, he asked the architect to make the restaurant "look like it had been there for 80 years on opening day." The team rediscovered and sealed the old marble tile floors, reused heart pine planks and stained glass to build a bar, revealed the brick walls, and restored the ceiling molding. The space now captures the "comfortable, romantic, warm, and sexy" feel of a classic French bistro, Saab says. To me, the setting is reminiscent of turn-of-the-last-century white-tablecloth restaurants that I've seen in old Birmingham photographs--elegant and inviting at the same time.

Bistro218-webSo how does the food match up to the atmosphere? Every dish is beautiful as well. Just take a look at these entrees (pictured)--chargrilled Gulf redfish with orange fennel salad atop blue corn grits in the foreground and shrimp and vegetable risotto in the background. Both are part of the Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu, and both (my wife and I like to share) were rich and flavorful. Earlier, we tried two entree-sized appetizers from the Restaurant Week menu--a meaty, satisfying New Orleans-style file gumbo and a tangy, chilled salad with arugula, corn, and red potatoes. A dessert of perfect creme brulee is included--seriously, my wife and I said it's the best creme brulee we've ever tasted.

This was our first visit to Bistro 218, and we plan to return soon. If you are like us and have driven past the restaurant several times, wondering what's inside, take the opportunity to enjoy a meal there during Birmingham Restaurant Week--and get a glimpse of Birmingham history.

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Fresh Approach

Thursday, August 22, 2013
Freshfully-icecream-webAfter a celebration of all things meat during my dining experiences on Tuesday, I took a turn for the veggie on Wednesday by having lunch at Freshfully. The Avondale market known for its farm-fresh produce and meats and Alabama-made products recently opened a cafe that sells sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and more. This week provided the perfect opportunity to make my first lunchtime visit.

Freshfully's $10 Birmingham Restaurant Week menu offers plenty of options, but I couldn't resist the summer siren song of the peach, chevre, and basil sandwich. The flavors melded beautifully, and the crisp peach contrasted nicely with the soft multigrain bread baked at Crestline Bagel Company. The sandwich came with a side dish, and I chose a green salad.

And then there was the ice cream. Freshfully's Restaurant Week menu includes a scoop of Atlanta's own High Road Craft Ice Cream, which comes in tongue-tantalizing flavors such as limoncello and vanilla fleur de sel. I chose brown butter praline, and I don't think I can emphasize how good this is. My infamous sweet tooth was very, very happy!

I also enjoyed the experience of eating at Freshfully. When you're surrounded by fresh produce and sitting at a long communal table where people easily strike up conversations with one another, it simply feels good to be there.

It's also a great vantage point to survey the revival of Avondale, which was an independent town before it became part of Birmingham in 1910. The street running in front of Freshfully was that little town's main street. Here's a fun fact: Freshfully is not the first grocery store to occupy its building. Around 1930, this one city block contained three separate grocery markets, with a Piggly Wiggly on the corner, Hill Grocery next door, and Cory and Faulkner grocers just a few steps away. By 1940, Hill's had taken over the Piggly Wiggly space and continued to operate on the corner for 20 more years. Today, Freshfully is carrying on the tradition of the neighborhood market, serving as an anchor for Avondale just as those earlier grocers did.

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Meet Vittoria

Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Vittoria-webOne of the most satisfying aspects of Birmingham Restaurant Week is discovering just how sophisticated and varied our local dining scene has become--and Vittoria offers a prime example. It is a shrine to all things meat, putting an inventive twist on pork, beef, and poultry.

The Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu (which differs from the one posted on the BRW site) is a good introduction to this new restaurant, where everything arrives in the form of small-plate dishes that are perfect for sharing. I chose a charcuterie board (pictured) as my appetizer--and it was a hit. My dining companions and I tried to consume every last molecule of the board's country pork pate mixed with almonds that was paired with brillat savarin--a soft cheese--and honeycomb and bread. My entree was a delicious pork osso bucco atop white polenta, with pickled cherry tomatoes, and a chocolate souffle with creme anglaise capped the evening. (Other Restaurant Week menu options include an heirloom tomato/peach salad for an appetizer and steak frites for the entree.)

My wife and our friend Tyler ordered dishes off the regular Vittoria menu, and it was fun to try their pork noodles (made from pig skin) in pork consomme, corned duck, boudin balls, and praline bacon. Before we had finished our meal, all of us were planning what else we should try on our next visit to Vittoria. We'll definitely be on the lookout for that charcuterie board.

Vittoria's design matches the food in sophistication. Warm wood contrasts with cool white tile throughout the space. A butcher shop never looked so inviting. As in the case of the Fish Market, Vittoria offers an example of creative reuse for one of Birmingham's old industrial buildings. The restaurant is part of the Martin Biscuit Building complex, originally constructed for the Martin Biscuit Company, a manufacturer of cookies and crackers that moved here from downtown Birmingham in 1928. After the firm went out of business, Walker Drug Company took over the space and expanded the building in 1958. The entire structure was renovated in the late 1990s to complement Pepper Place, itself a renovation of a 1930s Dr. Pepper syrup factory that operated for 50 years.

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The Art of Meatloaf

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
JohnsMeatloafI have two confessions to make before I begin this post:

1. I have not visited John's City Diner in far too long.
2. I had intended to save half of this meatloaf for my wife, but it was too delicious, and I ate every bit.

John's has been a favorite restaurant for several generations of Birminghamians, originally opening its doors in 1944 under John Proferis and moving into its current location (with its landmark neon sign) on Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard by the end of the 1970s. Nearly a decade ago, new owners freshened up the menu with a mix of classic comfort food and creative flavors--and the options for Birmingham Restaurant Week provide a good overview.

JohnsSign-webI had three choices for my lunch entree, and that delectable sculpted tower of meatloaf won out over the herb-crusted chicken and trout almondine. The hearty slice of meatloaf was balanced atop peaks of smashed potatoes and topped with crisp onions and pickled okra, with a just-right amount of mushroom gravy. The Restaurant Week menu also included a colorful garden salad. A Caesar salad also is available. It really was a great deal of food for just $10. The specials and other regular menu items my waiter described sounded delicious as well, and I'm eager to come back and explore more of John's classic-meets-modern menu.

John's City Diner actually sits next to an important site in restaurant history, though few people realize it. Just across the alley is the site where French immigrant Jean Galatoire opened his first restaurant and a hotel around 1889. Six years later, he left the city and eventually ended up in New Orleans, where he founded the legendary Galatoire's restaurant. John's City Diner ensures that this downtown block continues to be a destination for good food.


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Big Fish

Monday, August 19, 2013
snapperthroats-webWhenever I visit the tried-and-true Fish Market, I tend to gravitate toward my tried-and-true favorites. But today I enjoyed something different--the fried snapper throats featured on the Birmingham Restaurant Week menu.

The meal was nothing short of a feast--the snapper throats covered the plate, protecting a small nest of hush puppies. I had the choice of a Greek salad or two sides, and I went with green beans and Greek-style potatoes. All of that and a drink for just $10. It's tough to beat that deal. (Though the Fish Market's Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu does feature an entire lobster for $30.)

The snapper throats, which I had never tasted before, were delicious, with a flaky, crispy crust. And it's really hard to stop eating the potatoes. If you saw my last post, you'll understand how the Greek seasoning got into that dish and many of the restaurant's other recipes. The Fish Market's owner, George Sarris, is a Greek native who proudly carries on Birmingham's tradition of blending Greek and Southern flavors.

Likewise, the Fish Market's atmosphere is a blend of Greek and Southern. A leafy covered patio is just steps from a fishing boat containing tins of Greek olive oil; you can visit both a bar and, naturally, a fresh fish market under one roof. The place feels genuine and inviting, in part because it is a clever reuse of a historic Birmingham structure--the Harris Transfer and Warehouse Company building.


One of several fading ads on the Fish Market/Harris Transfer building. See the best of these ads--and learn its history--in Fading Ads of Birmingham.

Founded in 1880, the Harris firm was a moving company, and it also provided space to store household goods and business merchandise. The Fish Market's building was constructed in phases--in 1916 and 1923--in what was then a residential district. If you take a peek around the corner after your meal, you can see the giant doors that originally allowed entry for Harris's horse-drawn wagons as well as trucks. You'll also see a well-preserved fading ad promoting the company's services, which appeared on this wall by the 1930s, when the Harris company operated three warehouses in Birmingham. Though the Harris firm went out of business in the 1990s, the Fish Market is helping to keep its building alive with its vibrant setting and crowds of hungry diners.


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The Ghosts of Restaurants Past

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A neon relic remains from a once-iconic Birmingham restaurant.

We're just hours away from the beginning of Birmingham Restaurant Week 2013, the perfect way to celebrate how good we have it in this city when it comes to eating out. But before you go out and appreciate our current, nationally renowned culinary scene, let's take a quick trip back into the city's dining history.

Birmingham began to boom in the 1880s, starting the decade with 3,086 people and ending it with 26,178. And it seems that all the newcomers brought their appetites. The 1883-84 city directory, printed just 12 years after the city sprouted in a cornfield, lists 13 restaurants. Several were bakeries and coffeehouses that doubled as restaurants, including Rowlett's Vienna Bakery and J.V. Gasser's Bakery, Confectionery, and Restaurant, whose ad implored potential diners to "Eat, Laugh, and Grow Fat" and promoted the availability of ice cream. Meanwhile, the Delmonico restaurant offered "Tables supplied with every delicacy of the season, and prepared in the highest style of culinary art"--a claim familiar to Birmingham's current crop of farm-to-table restaurants. The headline of Delmonico's directory ad declared, "We Never Sleep!"--perhaps an early attempt at 24-hour service.

As Birmingham grew, lunch counters and cook shops filled the city to serve hungry workers with fast and cheap food. Greek immigrants began to open and operate many of these types of restaurants, from hot dog and barbecue stands to meat-and-threes, in the early part of the 20th century. As the city's fortunes rose, Greek owners responded with more upscale restaurants. Over time, many of their establishments became civic icons. In each case, the Greeks combined Old Country flavors with traditional Southern cooking, creating a cuisine for a New South city. (We have the Greeks to thank for Birmingham's unique take on the hot dog, for example.)

The chefs and diners of the past would be astounded at the variety and creativity we now enjoy in Birmingham's restaurants, but they helped to pave the way for it. Each of them added something special to the flavor of our city--something we can still taste today.

Now, let's eat!

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A Sense of Place

Monday, August 12, 2013
PigLips-Web2I'm really excited about the new prints I took to Naked Art last week. They're my first screenprints for sale, and they feel fresh, bold, different--and satisfying.

I've been reevaluating my art in the time since I wrote my book, trying to figure out what  I'm trying to capture in my prints and what techniques I want to use to translate it to the viewer. I've been inspired by our local chefs, who use Alabama ingredients and traditional cooking techniques as the foundation to create amazing dishes and unique flavors that give diners a sense of place, or terroir. I want to do the same thing, but with art, and I think these two new screenprints approach that--and open the door to more ideas in that vein. In the future, you'll see more screenprints, more screenprints mixed with block prints, prints combined with mixed media, more original drawings, more one-of-a-kind pieces, and new ways to look at our city, state, and region in a whole new light.

I hope you enjoy the new prints. Let me know what you think of them.

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Sign Up

Saturday, August 03, 2013
BarbersPhoto-webNow that the Penny dog food sign has found a new home at Regions Field, I'm hoping that we'll one day see the return of other iconic Birmingham advertising signs.

The Barber's clock really needs to come back from the warehouse where it currently sits in storage. For about 50 years, it lit up the night sky over Five Points South in a dazzling display of neon."Barber's" would flash in a dot pattern made of light bulbs while a neon "best!" alternated with "MILK" and "ICE CREAM." You could see it all the way down 20th Street. The sign was taken down in 2004 for roof repairs, and a group of people made some moves to restore it, but it has stayed in storage since then. (See a better photo here.)

SparklingRefreshment-FlickrThe Barber's clock actually reused the metal framework of an earlier sign that may have been even more eye-grabbing. Buffalo Rock's sign featured electric lights that gave the illusion of a bottle pouring ginger ale into a glass. I based my block print on an archival photo of the sign. According to Bhamwiki, the Buffalo Rock sign at Five Points replaced a four-story-high version that had stood at the drink-maker's headquarters in downtown Birmingham. Four stories high! Can you imagine what that looked like at night?

Sputnik-webI know of one other landmark Birmingham sign sitting in a warehouse. The colorful neon sputnik that flashed above the 48-lane bowling alley at Eastwood Mall likely appeared around 1960, when the shopping complex--the first of its kind in the South--was built. The alley and mall had closed by the early 2000s, but a fan of the sputnik saved it before all the buildings were torn down a few years later to make way for the Walmart shopping center that now stands on the site.

I'm not sure what Alabama Power plans to do with the old steam plant and other properties between Railroad Park and 20th Street that it now owns, but any one of these advertising signs--restored and relit--would be a great addition. Imagine one--or more--of them atop the steam plant, adding a zip of energy to the area at night and reconnecting us to one more unique, beloved piece of Birmingham's history.

PennyOriginal-webSpeaking of Penny, check out the sign's original incarnation circa 2004--and compare it to the restored version happily trying to catch homers at Regions Field.

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Curious Ad

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Cardui-WebOnce I saw the floating question mark next to the Mountain Dew and Pepsi logos, I had to know more about this wall. It's on the back of a building on the corner of 6th Avenue South and 27th Street South.

As you can see from the photo, there is an older fading ad here. It promotes Cardui, "The Woman's Tonic," a medicine for pain and "weakness"—in other words, menstrual cramps. The question mark comes from the probing, attention-grabbing headline that headlined most of Cardui's wall ads throughout many states: "Are You a Woman?" (now hidden under the soda ads).

The product was introduced around 1880 as "Dr. McElree's Wine of Cardui" by the Chattanooga Medicine Company. Through rumored to originate in a Cherokee recipe, Cardui included 19 percent alcohol. It's no wonder so many of Cardui's newspaper ads reprinted testimonials from delighted customers! One ad, from 1912, also noted that women "are subject to a large number of troubles and irregularities, peculiar to women, which, in time, often lead to more serious trouble." Cardui, it continued, "is needed to help you over the hard places, to relieve weakness, headache, and other unnecessary pains, the signs of weak nerves and over-work." Another ad claimed that Cardi acts "gently, yet surely, on the weakened womanly organs."

The 1912 ad used "Are You a Woman?"—which means that the Birmingham wall ad probably was originally painted around that time. According to fire insurance maps, this two-story building appeared on its corner by 1911; early on, it housed the East End Drug Company--a pharmacy that likely sold Cardui to women living in the surrounding residential neighborhood. The drugstore had morphed into a grocery by 1925, and over the decades, the space hosted a restaurant, tire company, upholsterer, and hardware seller.

Other faded signs on the 6th Avenue side of the building point to an automotive connection—perhaps from when Southern Rubber Company was located here in the 1940s, or from Automotive Industrial Supply, which moved in by 1963. The soda signs date from sometime after the mid-1970s, when Mountain Dew introduced this version of its logo. Currently, the building houses offices for a mental health services organization.
The Chattanooga Medicine Company still exists, under the name Chattem. It has a stable of well-known brands including Gold Bond, Coritzone-10, Icy Hot, Allegra, ACT, Selsun Blue, and Unisom. Cardui, however, disappeared from store shelves around the middle of the 20th century.

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Something New

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"The Curtain Rises"

I'm happy to share with you a new piece of art--one that involves a wholly different form of printmaking than the block prints you're used to seeing.

This is "The Curtain Rises," and it's a monoprint--a one-of-a-kind print--that I created by screenprinting an image drawn in chalk pastel. Does that sound weird? It is kind of weird. And it's somewhat unpredictable. I couldn't tell precisely how this print would turn out until I lifted the screen off the paper. That's part of the magic of printmaking, though. For this piece in particular, the imperfections made the image more evocative.

I've been experimenting with unusual forms of screenprinting, and I'll show you the results as I continue practicing. I'm enjoying the freer, more expressive feel of these techniques. They offer a lot of flexibility for images, and they allow me to mesh my drawing with printmaking. (Everything in "The Curtain Rises" is hand-drawn.) I'll continue to create block prints--in fact, I have two new ones in the final stages of carving--but you're going to see a lot more of these screen monoprints from me as well.

"The Curtain Rises" will be available in the silent auction for Opening Night: A Benefit for Alabama Landmarks, sponsored by the Alabama Theatre Junior Board. They're planning to recreate the Alabama Theatre's opening night in 1927, which promises to be a lot of roaring, Gatsby-style fun. I can't wait to debut this new piece in that setting.

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High Fade

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
FirstNatlBankGhostSignNot long ago, I was driving through downtown Birmingham and caught a quick glimpse of the letter "F" atop one of the buildings. I finally got a chance to take another look, and lo and behold, a "new" ghost sign is emerging. Take a close look at the photo, at the top left corner of the building, and you'll see the faint outline of the word "First"—for First National Bank of Birmingham, which once had its headquarters in the Frank Nelson Building on the corner of 20th Street and 3rd Avenue North. (This sign is visible from 20th Street, facing the north side of the building.) According to Bhamwiki, First National Bank occupied this building from 1903 to 1940, meaning the sign dates from some point between those years. The bank, which could trace its lineage to 1872, when Charles Linn founded the city's first bank, went on to become AmSouth, now merged with Regions.

The sign probably featured white letters on a black background, which is reappearing from beneath the beige topcoat. Or else that wall was really dirty and sooty when it was repainted!

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Music Notation

Wednesday, February 06, 2013
CharlemagneCheck this out. Renovations to the Five Points South building housing the legendary Charlemagne Record Exchange have revealed the shop's original hand-painted sign. It looks like it dates from Charlemagne's early days in the neighborhood, in the late '70s/early '80s, and has been hiding under an awning for decades. I'm not sure if the renovation plans call for a new awning, so be sure to stop by and see this small handmade wonder while you can.

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Two Less

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Photo courtesy of John Morse

Birmingham said goodbye to a pair of ghost signs this past week. The Grayson Rose Transmission signs on 6th Avenue South, with their cheerful "Friendly Grayson" mascot, vanished under a new coat of paint. The building is now part of Iron City, a new performance space (supposed to be amazing inside), which is preparing to open.

People often ask me how I feel when signs disappear in this manner. I bear no ill will toward a property owner who paints over an old sign; after all, the painted ads were never intended to last forever, and cities do change over time. However, it is sad to see a bit of color, character, and history--a little piece of Birmingham uniqueness--be replaced with a blank wall. In this case, Iron City could have used the still-vibrant Grayson Rose ads as a landmark to direct people to its doors. They certainly were worth keeping as a cool nod to the building's history. Definitely a missed opportunity.

The good news is that the signs aren't entirely gone. Ironically, the new coat of paint that hides the ads will help to preserve them by protecting them from the sun and weather. In a few decades, as the top coat fades, we'll see Friendly Grayson smile again.

I first saw these signs during a 5K race, of all things, in 2010. The sight of the colorful mascot, which had recently reappeared when siding was removed from the building, nearly stopped me in my tracks. You can learn more about the history of the Grayson Rose Transmission ads and their location in Birmingham's Automotive District in my book.

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Friday, January 11, 2013
PencilI've been setting up my new studio, which means I've been unearthing little treasures like this pencil. I learned to write with this pencil. I remember receiving it on the first day of first grade. Our teacher handed them out, and over the course of the year, we learned to write our letters as we repeated their sounds--which were somehow linked with some episodic story about a girl and a young cowboy or something or other. I'm surprised I still have this pencil, but I'm glad I held onto it. Every ad and article I've written in my career, as well as my book, has its roots in this simple childhood tool.

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"Alive and Modern"

Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Bo4After studying Birmingham’s fading ads, it’s exciting to see how many new ones are popping up on walls around the city. Avondale Brewing Company recently painted two on its back walls—and both are fresh and bold additions to the reawakening neighborhood. Both also are the handiwork of Birmingham artist Bonard Hughins, who has created several of the city’s newest painted ads. Here, he offers a few insights into the process of creating a wall sign in the 21st century:

Q: How did you learn about sign painting?

A: I grew up in my dad’s downtown print shop, where I saw modern functional signs and print media being made. I learned to apply paint to various types of surfaces when I was writing graffiti, and that also taught me a lot about scale, color, and what not to do. I learned a lot of my technique and skill as I went along. Now, I learn more if a certain job requires a specific look. It makes me focus and plan.

Q: How long did it take to create the Avondale murals? What challenges did you face?

A: The mural of Miss Fancy and [her caretaker] Mr. Todd took about a week, and the logo took three days, with four to six hours each day. Each one had unique challenges and required different techniques. Miss Fancy and Mr. Todd are based on a real photo; the challenge was getting that photo to scale so large. Also, I used spray paint for about 98 percent of it, and my color section was limited.

The Avondale Brewing Company logo was fun, but the first challenge was getting the color and lines perfect. Anything less than an exact copy won’t do because it’s their logo. The second challenge was learning to operate a bucket truck. It was a little intimidating at first, but once I got comfortable, it’s a bit like riding a bike. I could have fun and move anywhere in that thing.

Q: Do Birmingham’s fading ads influence your work?

A: I’m inspired by the old fading ads. The skill it took to create those is something to behold; the placement, scale, and accuracy is something that any artist or craftsman can appreciate and aspire to achieve.

A lot of the designs have a sense of personality and warmth to them, especially now that the era when they were created has passed. Hand painting gives the ads a sense of being alive. You can’t fake something that’s been done with human hands.

Q: What is the appeal of hand-painted signs? What do they add to a business or neighborhood?

A: Hand painting makes the signs more accessible to people—more real. They feel like they’re part of their environment; if they’re printed on paper or vinyl, it feels like they’re just sitting on top of their environment and won’t be there long. I do have an appreciation for modern materials, but they feel overused and impersonal sometimes. For me, a painted sign reaches out to shake your hand, where a billboard waves at you as you pass by. Hand-painted signs and murals naturally add warmth, color, and a unique personality.

Q: Do you plan to paint more signs?

A: I'm trying to get more into the traditional side of sign painting and am willing to try anything, whether it's restoration or something new and unheard of. I want to keep the the sign painting tradition alive and modern.

See more of Hughins’s painted signs and artwork on his web site. And be sure to check out his work in person at Avondale Brewing Company.

Photo and wall sign by Bonard Hughins

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Signs of the Past

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

This blog is meant to do several things—highlight news about my art and the book, for one. But I also want to continue what I started with Fading Ads of Birmingham by featuring some of the ads that didn't make it into the book, archival photos of long-gone painted ads, and other interesting sign-related items. I'll figure out some sort of tag for each post so that you can find them all easily.

The first extra feature offers a rare peek into a sign shop from the heyday of painted wall ads. Larry Rocks, one of the sign painters featured in my book, has shared some photos and memories from Art Sign Company, the shop his father founded and which he still owns today, dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. From them, you can see how the painters worked on much more than walls—everything from neon to vehicles. An ad in the background of several images promotes Art Sign Company as the place to go for wall ads, show cards, gold leaf, real estate signs, banners, silkscreened signs, and office doors. My favorite photo of the collection shows two sign painters adding the name "Howard" to the side of a large truck trailer. The job is half done, with the red outlines of the cursive letters spiraling gracefully off into the shiny silver background.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
I hope to see you this Thursday at the official launch event for Fading Ads of Birmingham! It's at Alabama Booksmith, located at 2626 19th Place South in Homewood, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. If you can't make it to this event, be sure to visit Alabama Booksmith anyway. Every copy of the book sold there will be signed. (And stay tuned for news about future signings.)

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A New Page

Thursday, November 15, 2012
CharlesBookMy book arrived last week, and it was a surreal to flip through it for the first time. It had seemed something of an abstract notion while I was researching and writing it, so it was exciting to finally see it in a tangible form. Putting it on a shelf alongside other Birmingham history books was another happy moment. I'm thrilled with how it turned out.

I can't wait for all of you to see it and interact with it and learn more about the fading ads and Birmingham's history. Let me know what you think, and please send in any questions. I'll try to answer them here on the blog. I also plan to feature some local ghost signs that didn't make it into the book. So come back soon!

Photo by Carrie Beth Buchanan

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