One Letter at a Time

originally published February 2019

Written by Abigail Walker/photo by Carole Kelly

Paul Gore is known around Clinton for helping bring businesses to life with his company, A To B Signs. But before Paul was using modern technology to generate letters, he was painting them by hand.

Paul got his first job hand painting letters at the age of 14.

“I needed money to rebuild a VW engine that summer,” he says. “My dad got me a set of brushes and dropped me over at Mr. Hannah’s on Highway 80.”

Paul was instructed to paint the New York Life Insurance Company logo on the office building that belonged to Barry Hannah’s father.

“I took to it like a duck to water,” he says. “I realized I could earn more money by painting signs.”

The success of this job propelled him to start his business, A Sign Co. But Paul had been showing artistic promise long before that moment.

His father, artist Sam Gore, founded the Mississippi College art department and has taught there for over 65 years. His wife, Margie, was the school nurse. Since the Gores were dorm parents at the time Paul was born, he spent much of his childhood in Ratliff Hall. Paul grew up visiting the kiln on campus and also tagged along when his dad would meet up with other artists.

“Dad would not let us have coloring books,” says Paul. “He thought it was stifling our creativity. We learned how to draw at an early age.”

After starting A Sign Co., Paul began painting school buses and sale announcements on windshields at car dealerships.

Because of the lack of equipment that allowed businesses to customize signs, Paul’s talent was highly sought-after. “People came looking for me to do hand lettering,” he says.

Paul eventually landed a job painting the gold leafing inside the Mississippi Capitol. “I would bring my boom box and have Elvis blasting through the building,” he says.

But Paul’s talents weren’t limited to hand painting. When he was in college at MC, he and his buddies came up with an idea to make and sell concert t-shirts. “My dad had shown me how to do screen printing,” he says.

The shirts were so successful that the people at Jubilee Jam took an interest and commissioned Paul and his friends to make the official festival t-shirts in 1974.

He even traveled to Central America to do airbrush t-shirts of celebrity portraits and beauty pageant contestants that were auctioned off at the Belize Sea and Air Festival.

Though he was extremely artistic, Paul majored in chemistry at Mississippi College, taking only enough art classes to get a minor. “I wanted to have a holistic education,” he says.

Now under the name A To B Signs in Clinton, Paul continues to use his hand lettering skills. His office is decorated with photos of past projects he’s done over the years.

He’s hand painted everything from Bobby Rush’s tour bus to nursery school windows. He restored the historic markers at the Grand Gulf Military Park, painting a billboard for a gas station in Pickens, and also hand lettered “Welcome to the Boulevard” signs on an old truck for the Clinton Business District.

One of the more memorable moments in Paul’s career was getting to be a part of the “My Dog Skip” movie. Someone connected with the film came upon him painting a sign for a business in Canton, Miss., and asked if he had any knowledge of hand-lettered signs from 1940s Yazoo.

“I told him that my dad had actually hand painted many of the signs in that town right after the war to pay his way through art school,” he says. “So I knew exactly what they looked like.”

Paul painted signs for the veterinary clinic, as well as the Army recruitment office, that were used in the movie. He even snuck in “Lt. Paul Gore” as the Army recruiter’s name on the door, which appears in one of the scenes.

“I was surprised to see me listed in the credits as ‘Master Sign Painter,’” Paul says.

Many of the signs for the “My Dog Skip” movie set can still be seen around Canton today.

Paul’s business has him primarily working with vinyl signs these days, and while he says he appreciates the automation, he still enjoys the skill involved with hand painting.

“It’s rare,” he says. “There’s more of a demand for computer-generated stuff, but if you don’t know the process, you’re not going to know how the finished product will look or last.”

“Painting has durability,” Paul adds. “Things like concrete, brick, and metal equipment have to be painted to last. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty.”

He says that many people are now going back to a more “retro” look with their signs, and researching past lettering styles is part of the process to get things as accurate as possible. He once had to research a particular kind of carousel horse to recreate them for a project.

“Authenticity is key,” says Paul. “I hope that the novelty of it will propel more people to get behind the craft of hand lettering.”

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A freelance writer from the Deep South with a love of reading, writing, dramatic storytelling, indie music, and her corgi pup.

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