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Signs of the Times

On March 15th, 2020, in response to the growing covid-19 pandemic, Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts announced statewide restrictions on restaurants and bars, mandating that they close their dining rooms and offer only takeout or delivery service. Two days later, as the restrictions went into effect, the Cambridge cafe where I work closed. A week later all “non-essential” businesses were ordered closed to the public. As the weeks went by, people were urged to stay home as much as possible and more restrictions arrived - grocery stores operating at 40% capacity, basketball hoops in public parks removed, face coverings required in public. As I write this, the orders have been extended yet again. We don't know how long this strange period will last.


Not working, I immediately started noticing the signs up in restaurants and stores advising their customers of their new situation. Some were carefully done, others appeared hastily slapped into the window, scribbled with whatever marker on whatever paper was at hand. Some were misspelled, at least one seemed clearly made by a child (a very careful and artistic child). 


I started keeping a look out for them as I biked or walked past the many businesses that make up my (now smaller) geographic radius. I started photographing them and making a small drawing of each sign. I am often interested in documentary style work, but I am not a photographer or a filmmaker.  Even in taking quick reference photos on my cell phone camera I noticed that the signs were often difficult to make out, marred by reflections on the glass doors or windows. The photos were filled with distracting visual information. Painstakingly drawing and water coloring them, I rendered them clear and able to be understood. I found a different way to document.


There is something interesting and intimate about copying someone’s handwriting.  I approached this process as making a drawing, not making a sign. I observed the shapes of the letters, the particular angles of one person’s particular way of writing, the thickness of the line. I imagined the motion of their hands, what it would take to give their letters a jaunty slope, or how they ran out of space at the edge of the page.

I started to find these signs so moving, that their existence captures a strange moment in a person’s life. Someone made these by hand. They didn't send them out to a graphic designer or have them professionally printed. They didn't even print them off on a home or office printer. There’s a desperation in some of them- the PANERA IS OPEN signs frantically littering the Porter Square parking lot. Some worker assigned to the task of making sure that people knew that they were open. The signs become about individual workers with their individual handwriting, no longer about the business or the company they are advertising. I don't have a lot to say about the big picture of what this situation means for the future of the American economy, but I am interested in the workers. May they have good health, full paychecks and new markers. 











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© 2020  Catherine Aiello