Project a good sign for creative team


Last updated 4/25/2023 at 7:16pm

Photo by Dennis Schmidling

The Sisters Movie House sign project turned out to be an educational opportunity.

Last week, Sisters was home to the first-ever "Sign Camp," the brainchild of Sisters resident John Mearns. The project was filled with collaborative synergy, fueled by enthusiasm and a commitment to give back to the community.

In just six days, four students from the Los Angeles Trade Technical College, a.k.a. "Trade Tech," worked with sign maker John Mearns to build, hand-paint, and install two huge new signs for Sisters Movie House & Café.

John Mearns and his wife, Cynthia Best, visited Sisters in 1993, bought property in 2006, and moved here in 2015. In 2019, Mearns sold his company, SignSource Inc., a large professional sign design and fabrication firm. He and Cynthia spent the pandemic years building on the property, by no means a small effort. They named their place YKnot Ranch.

Mearns is an artist, a thinker, and a builder with an outgoing personality.

"He is like a big kid," says Cynthia.

He absolutely loves signs - all sizes, all shapes and colors. Signs decorate the inside walls and exterior surfaces of the modern shop buildings on the YKnot Ranch. Perhaps you've seen his Acme Van driving around town. With 40 years in the sign business, Mearns has returned to his roots: creating, fabricating, and making all sorts of stuff.

As it turns out, John Mearns also has the aptitude of a mentor.

Once a year, MuralFest brings together hundreds of volunteers, called "Walldogs" from all over the country in one location to paint murals and old-fashioned advertising signs on local buildings. Their work is donated to the communities where they hold these festivals.

Last summer, John volunteered as a painter when the MuralFest was held in The Dalles. That is where he met some students from Trade Tech who were fellow "Walldogs." After all the paint dried and they returned to their respective homes, John and the students stayed in touch.

Over the fall and winter months, John conceptualized the Sign Camp idea as an event where he could mentor a few Trade Tech students who would build a sign project for the betterment of communities like Sisters. It would be a real-world job that would encompass all facets and phases of the sign trade – art, design, fabrication drawings, bidding, building, and painting the sign, installing it, and finally, accounting for the costs.

To expedite his idea, he would donate his time, price the total project as near to cost, and recruit the man- and woman-power, all in hopes of doing something meaningful that would give back to the community.

All that was needed was a really big sign job. The right project practically fell into their laps one evening while John and Cynthia were having burgers at Three Creeks Brewing Co. John looked out the window and across the parking lot, then said, "What about the Movie House? They look like they could use a new sign."

Cynthia shook her head. She was concerned for Movie House owners Drew and Yee Kaza. They had made it through the pandemic even though the theater was closed for many months, and are now appearing to make a strong recovery. But she worried that perhaps finances might still be an issue.

Still, it was worth a try.

John walked over to the theater and shared his thoughts with Drew Kaza, who blossomed at the idea.

"As a matter of fact, we were just talking about rebranding! Your timing could not be more perfect!" he told him.

Built in 2006 on the FivePine Campus, the Sisters Movie House has matured under the care of the Kaza family. But the hand-painted blue, gold, and white signs were beginning to show their age, thanks to the combination of hot summer sunshine and cold winters. New signs now welcome visitors driving into Sisters on Highway 20. The addition of "& Café" reinforces the unique cinema-plus-dining experience of a night out at Sisters Movie House.

Here is how it happened:

With the Kazas on board, Mearns' Sign Camp vision was actually proceeding. He could hardly believe his good fortune.

"Without Drew and Yee endorsing the project, this wouldn't have happened," he said.

Prior to the Trade Tech team's arrival, Mearns bought materials. He also negotiated the sign permits from the City of Sisters, in accordance with the local sign ordinance. Upon the arrival of the students, and before they began working, he educated them about choice and selection of materials, and the necessary approval processes.

Meanwhile, Sisters artist Dennis McGregor and designer Sally Sundsten of Bend revised the logo they created 17 years ago for the original theater owner, Lisa Clausen. Mearns used the revised design to demonstrate the importance of honoring the original branding intent.

With all the preparatory steps complete, the Trade Tech team had a short window of time in which to do a big job. The students learned new skills for using shop tools as they cut out and assembled eight big panels. They traced the shapes, cut and fabricated framing and panels, and transferred the art using perforated paper patterns (pounce patterns).

They used special low-moisture, cold-temperature paint for the primer and base coat that would dry quickly. In the shop, where the temperature was 40 degrees, they sometimes sat and watched paint dry. And then they painted some more.

Finally came the fun part, where their sign attained its own unique character, with hand-painted letters using special brushes and the artist's touch. The skills that they learned will last them a lifetime.

With all of the sign parts complete, it was off to Sisters Rental for a boomlift.

At sunup on Easter Sunday morning, the team moved everything from YKnot Ranch to Sisters Movie House for installation. Tools and sign panels were unloaded and staged for efficiency. Sawhorses and caution tapes were placed to keep the area free of traffic.

As he had all week, Mearns carefully explained each step to the team. Each piece needed to be raised and secured to the building. One at a time, they strapped on a safety harness and rode up in the basket with Mearns to fasten the panels in place. When not taking their turn on the boom lift, they relaxed and reflected on the work they accomplished.

As with any installation, there were a few minor adjustments made on-site, but basically it went as planned. There was a scatter of raindrops throughout the day, but the real shower held off until the final panel had been anchored to the building.

Photo by Dennis Schmidling

John Mearns instructing Sign Camp participants in the finer points of creating a hand-painted sign.

As final steps, the team returned to Sisters Movie House on Monday morning to clean the surfaces of the signs and do final touch-up. Then it was time for a trail hike, last views of the mountains, and cups of Sisters Coffee. Before they wrapped up, the team calculated all of the hard costs on the project. It was the final lesson in project management.

When contacted by The Nugget, Clausen expressed delight with the how the new signs came about.

McGregor shared that when he was originally working on the sign design, he asked Clausen about her prior business experience. She told him that she managed stores for Nike. "Which ones?" he inquired. "All of them," she replied. In a fitting conclusion to this saga, Drew and Yee Kaza treated the sign team to dinner and a movie of their choice on Sunday afternoon.

They picked "Air," the story of Nike's most successful shoe, the Air Jordan.


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