Helmstead is known in Louisville as ‘the sign guy’
By Lisa Truesdale
Ed Helmstead would be thrilled if he never heard Gene Autry’s version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” again. Ever.
Almost 40 years ago, Helmstead was sequestered overnight in Englewood’s then-new, now demolished Cinderella City Mall to work on a commercial painting job—creating the distinctive stripes that flowed throughout the cavernous space. “That song was on a continuous loop the entire night, playing over and over again,” he remembers. “Drove me nuts.”
These days, Helmstead, known in Louisville as “the sign guy,” gets to choose his own music, because all his signs are painted right in his backyard studio. At 75, he considers himself to be officially retired, although he says he’s busier than ever, designing and painting signs and murals for clients all over Louisville and the rest of the county.
Helmstead says he never had any formal art training, adding that art was actually his least favorite subject in high school. But he recalls one particular assignment that tasked students with painting a scene on a large piece of art board.
“I put it off because I didn’t want to do it,” he explains, “and it only took me about 20 minutes, right before it was due.” His hastily finished painting of Christopher Columbus’s three ships sailing the seas ended up winning first place in the school’s art contest. Years later, some of his hand-painted signs won awards sponsored by Signs of the Times magazine, a trade publication for the sign industry.
But still, he insists, “I’m not an artist. In fact, the worst signs are by artists. They try to get too fancy and creative, with distracting fonts you can’t even read.”
When he’s not bound by strict corporate sign-painting standards, as he was with the Coca-Cola mural he painted on the south side of the Louisville Historical Museum, Helmstead prefers to keep his designs fairly basic. Someone driving by a sign has about two seconds to read it, he says, so he thinks signs should rely on basic lettering that really “pops.” If he ever wants to get a little fancy—or if a client insists on it—he paints a colorful background but keeps the lettering plain. He also likes to use familiar shapes, believing that they offer people “a moment of comfort.”
If Helmstead ever finds himself stuck for a design concept, he simply goes to his favorite place for inspiration: the grocery store. “I just stroll through the aisles of canned goods to see what catches my attention,” he says. “I’m not looking to steal logos; I’m just looking for cool color combinations and unusual shapes that jump out at me. I figure they already paid millions for their designs, so they’re usually good ones.”
He’ll Go Down in History
Besides his eye-catching, hand-painted and hand-lettered signs, Helmstead has used a variety of other techniques over the years, including frosted crystal, gold leaf and hand-carved wood, as in the wooden sign that’s now in front of Moxie Bread Company at the corner of Main and Pine streets in downtown Louisville. “The owners supplied me with the wooden slab,” he says. “It was the biggest piece of Russian olive I’ve ever seen, and it was fun to work with something different.”
He has also painted locomotives, including several at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, and he recently designed and built a railroad-themed treehouse for a friend’s train-obsessed preschooler. He’ll paint just about anything, he says, although he has sworn off ladders after a bad fall earlier this year.
Helmstead is something of an institution in Louisville, says Bridget Bacon, the museum coordinator at Louisville Historical Museum.
“He’s kind of our own local sign painter, but more than just hand-painting letters, he creates very interesting and unique sign designs,” Bacon says. “Sign painting is a somewhat disappearing art in our digital age, and I don’t think Ed has ever received much formal attention for all of the interesting designs he brings to downtown Louisville.”
As it’s her job to preserve history—and her personal mission to get Helmstead some well-deserved recognition—Bacon invited Helmstead to give a presentation about sign painting on behalf of the museum. On Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., Helmstead will speak at the Louisville Public Library, sharing photos of his signs, discussing his career and answering questions.
Following the program, if Bacon has her way, Helmstead and his distinctive signs will go down in history … just like a certain reindeer.