That’s the thing about sign painting. I don’t have a job that I go to clock in and do my work and leave. I create. I have to hustle all of these jobs and I have a lot—like, I have six or seven,” Phil Vandervaart tells me from inside his South Minneapolis garage, which serves as his workshop and studio and smells strongly of paint and faintly of wood.
By six or seven, he means six or seven projects he’s currently working on or lining up for the spring. Some are new customers. Others are organizations he’s worked with before. A lot of his clients either hear about him through word of mouth or see his work around town.
The signs are hard to miss. A handful of his work iconically litters the West Bank—quaint and colorful hand-painted storefront signs, many of which are painted directly onto the buildings. There’s Midwest Mountaineering, The Hub Bike Co-op, Palmer’s Bar, the Cedar Cultural Center, Hard Times Cafe. More recent projects extend into the Longfellow/Seward neighborhood, and into St. Paul, like the Fitzgerald Theater mural, and trickle throughout the metro.
Most of the gigs pay at least a little, and Phil, who’s 65 years old, has managed to make a living from them. Others, like the Hard Times Cafe arrangement, are made on a barter system: Phil told the owners he’d paint their sign in exchange for free coffee for life. Twenty-six years later, he can still walk up to the counter and get a free cup.
“I can’t imagine how many hundreds of pounds of Peace Coffee beans Phil’s put them through,” says Chris Mozena, the executive director of the Firehouse Performing Arts Center, which is the parent organization of The Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge. Mozena hired Phil to paint a sign for the theater in the summer of 2017. “It was just right—checked every box of who we wanted to work with: someone from the community, someone with a good track record of success. He’s a character and he supports the arts, you know? You know, everybody knows Phil,” Mozena continues.
Before settling down in Minneapolis, Phil spent most of the 1970s hitchhiking across the country and finding work where he could. In the late ’70s, he found himself in a cult.
“I was a moonie; I was in the Unification Church,” Phil explains. “But that’s not really part of my story anymore.” After extricating himself, Phil says he joined an anti-cult organization and helped deprogram others who had been taken advantage of—something he still participates in today. It’s a part of Phil’s life he isn’t fond of. Getting out, however, heavily informed his political and social views, and shaped his personal philosophy to question everything and be helpful.
Phil’s main trade is carpentry, and he’s used it to get by when he could. “My idea was to live in all these towns for a couple of years and keep moving around,” he says. “I wasted a lot of time, but I saw America.”
It was in a small town near Chicago Heights, Illinois, though, that Phil started painting by hand. He was working as a school bus driver and washing buses on the weekend when he met a guy named Swanny who was doing the lettering of the school district names on the side of the buses.
“He just drew some horizontal lines, just put a little sketch mark like this,” Phil says while gesturing swift, flat strokes with his hands. “He’d just mark where it is and then just freehand it.”
Phil, who had been trained in technical drafting, says seeing Swanny working so artistically freed him to do the same. “I thought, ‘Well, I could do that.’”
From there he says he learned by taking on jobs and working through it. Phil has now been painting signs for 40 years, 35 of which have been in Minnesota. “It took me a couple of years to loosen up,” Phil says. “People are mad at you in the beginning, you gotta learn to do business for yourself. Which is hard for me.”
The West Bank was a beacon of sorts for Phil—and other outcasts like him—in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “It’s where the blues were. It’s where the musicians were,” he says, mentioning that he plays the harmonica and would often join bands at parties or bars or other events.
Palmer’s, in particular, is important to Phil’s story. He’s repainted the bar’s sign twice, the last time adding his own contributions to the West Bank institution: a beer mug to the right of the Palmer’s name, and a beer belly on the dandy with the goblet. “I figured since he’s 40 years old, I gave him a potbelly,” Phil says.
It was at Palmer’s that Dylan Adams, owner of Agartha Records on University Avenue in St. Paul, ran into Phil during a performance (Phil plays the harmonica at the bar every first and third Sunday of the month) and decided to have him paint a sign for the shop. “I didn’t know who he was, but we just got to chatting,” Adams says. “He was pretty timid about his sign painting, so I didn’t really know he was a sign painter until shortly after. I was just pretty lucky to have met him randomly at a bar.”
Everyone knows Phil.
In addition to his solo work, Phil is a member of IATSE 490, the Minnesota chapter of the International Alliance of Stage Employees and Studio Mechanics. In short, he paints fake storefronts for films and TV commercials. He worked on the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” all three of the Mighty Ducks movies, and more—about 25 in total, he says.
Two handmade sheds in Phil’s backyard stand as a record of his work on the big screen. Through a stroke of luck, he was able to scavenge some of the signage he made for the Mighty Ducks movies and decided to use them as building materials—more specifically, as the walls and ceiling of a small patio. Inside the three walls of the movie-sign lean-to are an armchair and chaise, rugs, prayer flags, and a lamp on a small table.
“I’ll just sit out here and think. Relax. Play some music,” Phil says of the shed. “Obviously in the summer; it’s kind of hard to enjoy it out here right now.”
His garage is similar to his second shed (which houses a jumbled collection of scavenged items) but is slightly more organized. Years of paint cover the workbenches. There’s no signage besides some sketching he’s started for his upcoming projects. Small windows on each side of the cedar garage door are covered with aging red curtains that allow the sun to only hazily drizzle through. Paint cans of all sizes and colors line the wall. Zig-Zag rolling papers and a lighter sit on the table. Paintbrushes and an assortment of hardware dot the paint-layered workbench and fill the drawers beneath.
“Here, watch this,” Phil says as he clears a spot on the workbench and douses a rag with some varnish, then wipes it across the splatter. “Woooo, pretty colorful, isn’t it?” He says wryly with a smile and a chuckle.
He’s eager to show me what he’s been working on this winter. “This is a coat rack I’m making for my daughter,” he says proudly as he grabs a wood-piece from a side table. The work-in-progress is crafted from table legs, an old wicker chair, and some broomsticks he’s fashioned together.
We go inside his house where a BBC news segment is playing on the radio in the kitchen. There’s a cluttered desk with several large potted cacti, letters, papers, pens, and a tiny disco ball. In the middle of his living space is a large wooden table upon which a couple of sketch pads and old newspapers are chaotically strewn about.
The whole house is like this, save for a small shelving unit at the front window that is neatly organized and clean. Totes of children’s toys, coloring books, markers, and kids’ novels line its shelves. “This is the little area I set up for my grandkids,” Phil says. “They’re two and four. I see them every week at some point or another.”
Phil’s daughter, Ayla, is one of the reasons he made Minneapolis his home. “I almost immediately had a child within two years of being here,” he recalls warmly. “For me to have a child, it was completely accidental. But, I rolled with it and stuck around, ya know? I had to help raise this daughter.”
“Were you and her mom close?” I ask.
“I’ve never been married,” he replies. “We get along now. It takes a while, but you ultimately have to do that for the sake of the child. So you get over your own things and, ya know, as time goes on you forget about it anyways. Like, why were we arguing? What was the reason for all that?”
Phil’s hodgepodge, blue-collar-Bohemian background informs everything he does.
As a three-year-old, he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1957. According to Phil, his family was moving to America for many of the same reasons people emigrated from Europe after World War II. His father had been a tool and die maker in Holland and felt there was more work and better opportunities for his children in the U.S. And, after spending five years hiding in the false attic of a theater in the Dutch city of Den Haag in order to avoid Nazi conscription, his dad was eager to move on.
The Vandervaarts traveled to America aboard the SS Statendam, which was making its maiden voyage from Holland to the U.S, and landed in Hoboken, New Jersey. They’d already weathered an Atlantic storm and a tugboat strike in New York Harbor that had delayed their arrival by several days. As Phil puts it, “my dad was kind of desperate. You’ve got three kids, $200 to your name, and you just got off a boat.”
His father eventually landed a job with a company in Chicago, and Phil spent his childhood in nearby northern Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan. “He was a totally technical dude,” Phil says of his father. “He was also a figure drawer. He even taught figure drawing right in our home when I was a kid.”
“Phil’s more an artist than a cold technician,” Regina Perry, the stage manager at Tasty Lighting Supply and ACME Stage in Minneapolis, who Phil painted signs for, says. “These other guys, these other sign painters, they’re the ‘Sesame Street’ version of a sign painter—you know, overalls, a little handkerchief, and the name of their company on the side of their truck. Phil is the anti that.”
“I just try to do the best job on each one I can,” Phil says.
As I packed up my gear to leave, Phil checked his phone to see if he’d missed any calls from prospective clients. He’s stopped drinking, he says, and told me how excited he was to see his grandchildren as we walked to my car.