Go to any McMenamins location and you will find Nick Lee’s artwork on display.
In fact, Lee’s works should be the first thing you see.
“I do all the hand painted signs for McMenamins hotels and restaurants,” he said. “Pretty much any one you go, the signs are something that myself or my father has painted.”
In a large studio space in Southeast Portland, Lee spends his days creating signs for a variety of clients. Some are quick and economical prints produced on a computer, while others, like those for McMenamins, are elaborate, and require a more extensive, hands-on approach.
“It can be tricky because if somebody just wants a quick vinyl sign, that can be done in one day versus a hand-painted and carved sign that may take weeks or months,” he said.
Lee is the owner of Studio Signs and Pictorial Displays Inc., and is responsible for creating some of Portland’s most eye-catching signs and billboards.
The space is adorned with various works of art showcasing signs Lee has created over the years, from hand-painted coffee advertisements to shiny gold lettering etched on glass.
Lee puts the finishing touches on his latest work, an oval wood sign that will eventually go up on McMenamins’ Annex Bar in downtown Portland.
Using nothing but a small paintbrush, special paint and a long, wooden mahl stick to steady his hand, Lee carefully paints the outlines of the ivory-colored letters in bright red, creating a stark contrast to the sign’s black background.
“It’s the little details that really make a good sign,” he said. “Even though it’s just a border, it’s important. It’s part of the layout and it helps with the overall design.”
The process is slow and methodical, but the payoff is worth the work. Lee said the variety of signs he gets to make is a big part of what keeps him motivated.
“One day I could be doing a wood sign, the next day I could be doing a carved sign, the next day I could be doing gold leaf on glass, the next day I could be doing screen printing on metal.”
For Lee, sign painting is a family business.
“I’m a second-generation sign painter. My father ran the business before I bought it. So I was pretty much born into the world of sign painting,” he said.
His father, Melvin Lee, came to Portland from Vancouver, B.C., in the 1970s and found work at Studio Signs with then-owner Dean G. Stanley. Melvin Lee and the other painters there created a number of signs, from truck lettering to lettering on outside of buildings, some of which are still standing today.
“Lots of the signs we do are out there and fairly permanent, some lasting 10 to 15 years,” Melvin Lee said. “We put a lot of hard time and effort into a work, so it’s nice to have our stuff viewed for a long period of time.”
When it came time for Stanley to retire, he chose Melvin Lee as his successor. In 1985, Melvin bought and ran the business.
Nick Lee, having grown up in the shop, learned the various techniques of sign making from his father and the other painters around him. Though he didn’t initially plan on working at Studio Signs, he was eventually drawn to the opportunity to further his art education under his father’s tutelage.
“I said, ‘Hey, I want to do this full time and learn how to do all the traditional stuff.’ And so he started teaching me hand lettering, sign painting, screen printing, gold leaf on all the cool, traditional stuff. And I’ve just run with it since,” he said.
Years of working at Studio Signs, along with taking workshops from established sign makers, helped Nick Lee hone his artistic skills and his knowledge of how to run the family business. So in 2018, when Melvin was set to retire, it was natural that Nick would take over.
Nick Lee has embraced technology as a tool of sign-making. These include graphic design software and the use of a vinyl plotter, a machine originally brought in by his father when he took over, to create quick, economical signs more efficiently.
Even with the latest technology, Lee said traditional hand-painted signs are still preferred by many customers due to their timeless appeal and sense of permanency.
“That’s why, traditionally, lawyers and banks would have the gold leaf. Businesses that are invested in the community, they want have nice signs that are meant to last because it shows ... that they’re here to stay,” Nick Lee said.
The Lees’ artwork has been recognized outside the state of Oregon.
Recently, they were involved in a special art exhibition in San Francisco, titled “But Where Are You Really From?” which showcased the creations of sign painters who are people of color.
For the exhibition, Nick Lee created two pieces of art that highlighted his Chinese-American heritage. One of the pieces was made out of liquid silver with the date 1882 emblazoned on the front. The date is significant because it refers to the year the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the United States.
“I was born in 1982, and this is kind of a tribute, saying look at this dark history, but 100 years later, I’m a Chinese-American artist. So this is my commentary on that,” he said.
While Lee appreciated the attention he was receiving for his own work, he was much happier for his father and the recognition he received for his years in the business.
“In the past, a sign painter was just a sign painter,” Nick Lee said. “To have younger people say, ‘Hey we appreciate your work and we want you to actually make a poster so we can memorialize it,’ I think that was really cool for my dad.”
Being the company’s third owner, it’s not lost on Lee how important it is for him to continue the legacy of Studio Signs. The business, which began in 1963, passed down to Melvin, and now to Nick, has endured a long history of providing quality work that has withstood time.
“My father and I are both lifelong martial artists, and in the same way that there’s a linage from teacher to student in the martial arts world, I feel there’s a similar linage with the sign shop,” Lee said.
Yet, even as he puts the finishing touches on his latest sign, he still finds enjoyment in the process, looking for new techniques to learn and improve his craft.
There’s always more to learn, he said.
Meanwhile, Melvin Lee is enjoying retirement knowing that his son will continue the work that he’s done for so many years.
“I’m proud of him,” he said with a smile.