Artists collaborate to make creative signs for Valley Junction businesses

A new project brought together artists and business owners to design unique signs for local businesses in the Valley Junction business district.

The project was called, “CoSign” through the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. The signage was created for small business owners using a visual artist and professional sign fabricator.

There were 18 businesses that went through the process and ten were selected.

Jim Miller—Executive Director of the Historic Valley Junction Foundation—said he heard about CoSign in the Spring of 2016 at the National Main Street’s Conference.

Miller said Valley Junction at Iowa City were two of the six neighborhoods chosen for the grant.

“Then we put out the call to artists, saying here are 18 businesses that are interested in the project,” Miller explained. “We took photos of each building, said where the sign would go, so if you were an artist you could do all 18, or you could do one.”

Each business owner was asked to pick a finalist from the booklet they received with the submitted sign designs. Then a jury picked ten out of those to do full fabrication.

“Even though it’s not public art, it’s close to public art,” Miller says. “It’s on private property but it sure feels like public art.”

Partnering businesses with artists

Business owners were asked to pay ten percent of the cost, with Polk County, the City of West Des Moines, Main Street Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council and Bravo supplying the rest of the funding.

In total, the project cost just over $90,000.

Susan Watts—owner of Olson Larsen Galleries—was one of the ten businesses to receive a new sign.

“It’s just such a great mix of businesses and everybody has a creative bend in some way I think,” Watts said of Valley Junction. “And in a community like this too with the buildings, the way they are, each of them is a piece of art. The way people change and restore them, it’s part of what I like about being down here. Being part of that history.”

Watts said she had never been through a process like that before.

“I like the idea of the immediate engagement with the artists,” Watts said. “The whole matchmaking thing was a pretty fun way to approach it.

“It was just a nice engagement of the artistic community in a completely different way.”

Miller said Valley Junction has always had an art and culture bend to it.

“From 30 years ago to people doing folk art to Ann doing high-end jewelry that is certainly a work of art. There’s always been a pretty strong arts and culture vibe here.”

Miller said three of the businesses who didn’t have their sign selected, are pursuing their own sign grant.

Valley Junction
On Oct. 6 business owners were able to unwrap their sign. It just so happened to be during a monsoon. Photo courtesy of Jim Miller

Hanging signs is a challenge

Mark Goodrich—Historic Valley Junction Board President—said some of the business owners got an eye-opening experience when they saw what designs were made for their business.

“Some of the artists did talk to the business owners to come up with an idea, but some didn’t,” Goodrich says.

Miller and Goodrich said hanging each sign became a gamble because they never knew the shape of each building.

“We have buildings that are 100 years old and nobody has blue prints,” Miller says laughing. “You really don’t know what’s in the walls. And these signs are heavy, the lightest was around 75 pounds.”

The signs were unveiled at the end of September in a private showing and then publically on Oct. 6.

Watts said business owners were able to be lifted in the “bucket truck” to unwrap their sign.

“In a monsoon,” Miller says laughing. “It was very dramatic.”