Sign by sign, a sculptor earns his way to creative freedom
Brent Whitney fabricates signs of metal and wood in his Adams workshop
ADAMS — Located next to a museum known for its art's abstraction, the new sign above Bright Ideas Brewing offers comfort to those thirsting for something more literal than what's inside the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art: "BEER," it spells in three-dimensional yellow letters.
"I prefer there to be nothing decorative about the signs that I make," Brent Whitney said during a Tuesday morning tour of his Howland Avenue shop.
But that doesn't mean the owner of Adams-based WHITCO lacks creativity. Like many of Berkshire County's signmakers, Whitney draws from an artistic background to fabricate signs out of primarily wood and metal, including a bracketed model at AJ's Trailside Pub and a carved barrel at Brava in Lenox. Still, the longtime sculptor resists embellishment in his sign work because he wants to best serve his commercial clients' needs.
"Instead of dressing up signs and making them cool, it's really about taking a look at how the sign serves a design purpose," Whitney said.
For example, museumgoers can glimpse the Bright Ideas sign's hefty aluminum letters from the left or right as they are exiting or approaching Mass MoCA.
"It was important to have some sort of three-dimensionality to it," Whitney said.
The Adams resident requested that the letters be made "as a can."
"It's getting the letter cut out and welding metal all the way around it, like the Mass MoCA sign, [which] has that three-dimensional, bodily feel to it," he said of the phrase's meaning.
In addition to signs, Whitney works on displays, staircases, furniture, doors and public sculptures in WHITCO's 1,400-square-foot space.
"There's definitely not enough work for just being a signmaker," Whitney said.
His shop-and-office setup is housed in the former Squeeze soda bottling building. Upon entering, visitors encounter a metal fabrication area to the left that features a milling machine, drill press and lift, among other apparatuses. A loading dock allows trucks to import materials through this wing. Whitney gets stainless, brass and bronze metals from Yarde Metals in Albany and wood from closer vendors such as r.k. MILES and Stanley's Lumber. Splintery stuff fills the room's right half, with a band saw between the two sections.
"I can cut up to 12-inch hunks of metal with this thing," Whitney said of the machine.
Beyond the work area, a rectangular office that Whitney calls his "command center" can be seen behind a windowed wall. Whitney built the room and creates blueprints there. After sitting down in front of a couple of monitors, he presented a hard-copy design of a spit jack (a meat roasting machine) he was beginning to make for Heirloom Fire and its rendering in a computer program called Rhinoceros. He did the same for a Norad Mill project.
"This is actually what I do mostly, is sit back here and draw," he said.
During his youth in Cheshire and Adams, Whitney enjoyed illustration.
"I grew up drawing, wanting to be a cartoonist," the 34-year-old said.
His interest in fabrication emerged while working at Mass MoCA as a Hoosac Valley High School student.
"Mass MoCA really took me under their wing," he said of a museum that has since contracted him for sign work.
In 2008, he opened a studio in Pittsfield. While studying sculpture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Whitney started making frames for painters as well as signs. His metal fabrication work began in earnest after he finished school.
"I had to learn a trade, metal fab, which is separate from sculpture, and that was hard to figure out," Whitney said, noting that, unlike metal fabrication, signmaking can fall under a broad definition of sculpture.
There was something else he had to learn, too.
"You've got your education, you've got your trade — now you need to know how to run a business, so that's a whole new trade. That becomes just another challenge: money management, everything has to be filed, bookkeeping and accounting," he said.
His first large signmaking project came in 2014 when he created a 14-footer for Adams Ale House. Over the years, his two-to-three person operation has also worked on signs for Cheshire Elementary School, Angelina's Subs and District Kitchen & Bar, among others. For companies with design teams, he translates their logos into signs. For firms that haven't budgeted for marketing and signage, he generates the logo himself, designing it with three dimensions in mind.
"If they don't have a logo, typically that makes things easier for me. I don't necessarily charge for graphic design branding," he said.
Whitney lauds the current Berkshire signmaking community for its ingenuity. Past generations may have leaned too heavily on printed signs for his liking.
"It used to really irritate me because the printed sign serves a function for political races and things like that, but if you're a company and you just have a sign printed, sometimes it makes your company look temporary," he said.
Whitney is in it for the long term with WHITCO. A whiteboard in his office tracks potential, current and future projects. This winter has been slow, he admits, but he has kept costs down with an eye toward the future: He wants to add at least another 1,400 square feet to the space, he said. His sculpting career helps keep him motivated to expand his business.
"When I'm doing commercial work and making something for a client, I trick my mind into thinking that it's my art, my sculpture," he said, "but it's really just the nature of the world that I live in [that] to have a shop, to have my heat on, I don't have a choice but to make other people's ideas."
His office features some of his own. Behind his desk, a red hot dog machine towers above a fan. He made it in college.
"It used to work. It's sort of the-absurdity-of American-culture kind of thing," he said.
A Whitney-built coin slot machine hugs one of the room's walls. He would soon return to welding a larger model out in the shop's metal fab area, exploring his own concepts in a space where he so often builds for others. One day, he hopes he'll have more creative freedom.
"I think the goal eventually is to have my own say in everything," he said, "but in the meantime, you have to earn your way to that."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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