In this job we get to meet some amazing people, doing incredible things.
But every so often we come across a story from left field. A story that leaves you totally amazed and in awe of the brilliance and incredible talent some people have.
I had just such an instance at the weekend at the Pyree Literary Institute, just east of Nowra, or what locals affectionately know as Pyree Hall.
A group called the Letterheads got together for their 25th annual conference.
And what are Letterheads you may well ask?
They’ll simply tell you they are a group of professional signwriters - but they are far more than that they are artists in their own right.
Some of the work turned out over the weekend was simply stunning, including a massive new mural depicting Pyree Hall and the view over farmland towards Coolangatta Mountain.
The work also captures snapshots of events and groups the Pyree Literary Institute, which will next year celebrate its 125th birthday, has been part of.
The hall was used as the South Shoalhaven Council chambers, it was a library, a meeting place, movies were screened and old time dances along with balls, parties and weddings held.
The mural pays homage to and honours many locals who served in both World Wars, the many community service groups that also used the facility, like the Red Cross.
The local agricultural industry and in particular dairying, and, of course, sport where Pyree was a powerhouse in both rugby league and cricket are featured.
Nowra’s symbol, the black cockatoos, also make an appearance.
More than 80 “artists” converged on the hall for three days of fun, friendship and work - participants travelling from all over the country to take part, as well as overseas from the US and New Zealand.
As well as undertaking their own work the participants produced a variety of projects for the hall and even took the opportunity to learn new skills from their fellow artisans.
A special dinner was held at the hall on Saturday night which included a presentation by life member Geoff Herne on the history of the Pyree Literary Institute and the district.
Founding father ‘blown away’ with skill level on show
One of the Letterheads’ founding fathers Jim Frederick said the aim of the group was to keep the “old craft of signwriting alive”.
“Letterheads is a mentoring program and a way of keeping the craft alive,” he said.
“We first met in Wagga Wagga in 1994. It was started by myself and a fellow called John Rigby, who was in business there.
“It was successful in an age when people found they were competitors but when they entered the realms of the meeting, they all joined forces and really learnt and expanded their knowledge and found there was nothing to fear from competition in business from each other.
“We’ve moved every year since then - at Pyree the basis of the meeting is not only to do our own signage of yesteryear and show some skills of today but work in the historic Pyree Hall and use as part of our exercise redoing the mural and also some a new signs, keeping with heritage look of the building, looking onto the street and a freestanding sign with the hall’s history here in grounds.
“We are telling the story of 125 years of activities of Pyree Hall.”
Mr Frederick said he believes there should be a category in the Archibald Prize dedicated to “fine art of signage”.
“These people are artisans in their own right,” he said.
“Now, in my retirement, having spent over 50 years in the sign industry I’m still on a big learning curve.
“I don’t think I have seen finer signage in my life than what is on show here. A couple of examples here are simply extraordinary.”
I don’t think I have seen finer signage in my life than what is on show here. A couple of examples here are simply extraordinary.Letterheads’ founding fathers Jim Frederick.
Work on show over the weekend included all varieties of signage, including a lot of the old skill of lining and scrolling.
“We have a couple of people respected in the industry who had that as a niche market in their business life, including old spoked wheels,” he said.
“In the lining field we also have a guest from America, Todd Hanson - their [US] lining and scrolling is probably more modern but still respects and uses some of the old theories and textbooks with the lines and scrolls of yesteryear.”
Actually while in the Shoalhaven he pinstriped a 1950s Ford.
Gold leafing, calligraphy, chalk art and airbrushing were also on show.
“Each year we strike up a logo - this year I was proud to have my design chosen and accepted and they used that as part of the gold leaf projects,” he said.
“People of all ages can do it, a complicated artform that is mostly lost to people, being retaught.
“The Kiwis are actually an incredible class of people - I’ve been privileged to attend over 10 meeting in New Zealand and their ability is superb in the craft.”
He said as much as the meeting was about keeping the artform alive it was also about socialising.
“Catching up is a serious part of the gathering,” he said “in the industry you can be isolationist and insular but this event is designed to get people together and learn off each other. I can’t believe we are here 25 years later and it’s been so successful.”
Special homecoming for Sharon
For Sharon Fensome, of the Central West, the 25th Letterheads meeting was a chance to come home.
Originally growing up at Coolangatta, she has run her business Sharon Fensome Signs at Thuddungra, 30 kilometers west of Young, for 34 years.
“When I heard this year’s meeting was at Pyree, I thought great I can go home and visit family and friends,” she said.
It was also a chance to catch up with her mentor and great friend Peter Crossman, of Nowra Signs at Pyree.
“Peter hosted me on two weeks of work experience when I was a teenager,” she said “I knew I wanted to be a signwriter but those two weeks under Peter’s guidance just cemented my desire and passion.
“That was 30 odd years ago and even today we speak most weeks. if I have an issue or question I ring Pete and he’s always available and willing to offer advice.”
Sharon also played a role in Mr Crossman’s concept design of the giant mural within the hall, with inspiration also coming from an original Berry Creamery and Butter sign owned by hall committee member Con Watts.
With a lot of clandestine activities, including his wife Michelle sending me lots of photographs, I reproduced the sign for him.Sharon Fensome
“It was a beautiful sign and we used that for ideas,” Sharon said.
“During one of our many discussions Pete said he’d love to produce one of the signs - that laid the seeds and with a lot of clandestine activities, including his wife Michelle sending me lots of photographs, I reproduced the sign for him.”
It took her 80 hours to recreate, bringing a sign close to 100-years-old back to life.
She even managed to insert her home, Coolangatta Park, where she grew up, into one of the scenes.
“I love doing work like these,” she said “Pete’s a special person so it was great to be able to do something special for him.
“With work like this it’s not hard to get inspired and in the zone. You might start painting after work with the intention of doing a couple of hours and then look up and it’s well after midnight.
“You just get in that zone and time just sort of stands still.
“It was great to be able to surprise him with it when I arrived down.”
As well as doing “regular” sign Sharon also does a lot of large mural work where some works could be six metres long and around the same height.
From US to Pyree for a special meeting
When Culburra Beach’s Paul Metcalfe ordered a hand painted guitar from the US, he never thought he would get to meet the artist, in of all places, Pyree.
But that was the case on Saturday, when he met US pinstriper Todd Hanson.
“This is unreal,” said Paul, after meeting the Ohio based artist.
“Todd and I have a mutual friend in Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ bass player Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. Todd had painted three guitars for Eric.
“I saw them and said I have to get one of those.”
The trio hooked up through Facebook Messenger.
The guitar was ordered, constructed in Nashville, shipped to Todd in Ohio and arrived Down Under about a month ago.
“We corresponded over messenger and found we liked a lot of the same music genres and groups,” Paul said.
“The likes of Jeff Johnson from Jason and the Scorchers, The Yahoos and bands like that - a bit underground.
“We also know a lot of the same people.
I couldn't believe it when Todd told me he was coming to Australia and to a place called Pyree. I said ‘Wow that’s literally just around the corner'. There was no way I was going to miss the chance to meet him in person.Paul Metcalfe
“The guitar is just superb - I love it.”
Todd, who has been in the industry for 42 years, has also created works for the likes of Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Steve Earle and Dan Baird.
“I couldn't believe it when Todd told me he was coming to Australia and to a place called Pyree,” Paul said.
“I said ‘Wow that’s literally just around the corner’.
“There was no way I was going to miss the chance to meet him in person.”