LYNN — With an adjoining door connecting their shops, sign painters Ted Kiley and Chrissy Lebel are young entrepreneurs continuing a Central Square business dating back to 1884, the year Joseph C. Lewis opened Lewis of Lynn Signs. Lewis retired in 1940, but the company operated for years at 54 Spring St. before moving to Mt. Vernon Street, where Gary Robinson carried on the Lewis of Lynn tradition and Ray Whittier ran Ray J. Whittier for Lettering in the adjoining shop.
Kiley is now Lewis of Lynn’s proprietor and Lebel runs the sign business that bears her name, Lebel Signs, in the space next door once occupied by Whittier.
“We’re both old souls, I guess,” Lebel said.
The Beechwood Estates sign on Boston Street and Casa Antigua sign on Oxford Street are examples of the signmakers’ work. Kiley spent part of last Friday painting a sign for Salem Country Club and crafting the sign’s ornamental post.
Lebel also works with paint and wood and her clients include Putnam Pantry. Like Kiley, she enjoys hand-lettering names onto commercial trucks and taking her brush and paint to the sides of boats to paint the vessel’s name.
The painters took separate but similar paths to their trades.
A Peabody native and resident, Lebel drew inspiration from graffiti to enroll in the now-closed Butera School of Art in Boston.
“When I got out of school, I did layout work on computers. It was boring,” she said.
Kiley’s name came up in a conversation during one of her bartending shifts at the Four Winds and she met the Lewis of Lynn owner and spent an hour talking with Kiley about sign making.
“He said, ‘Do what you like to do,'” she said.
Lebel started sign painting in 2011 and moved to Mount Vernon Street three years ago. She said Kiley has been a mentor and helping hand on jobs she has undertaken.
“He’s a second set of eyes for me on a project,” she said.
Lynn native Kiley also attended Butera, and Salem State University. Like Lebel, he discovered he wanted to get out from behind a computer screen and into a shop ripe with the smell of sawdust and fresh paint.
Before buying Lewis of Lynn from Robinson in 2012, Kiley served an apprenticeship of sorts with Robinson and Whittier.
“I swept up, cleaned the bathrooms, and listened to Ray’s poetry,” he recalled.
Kiley and Lebel’s shops are confined but neatly-organized spaces with a tool-lined carpentry room and an old vault in Lebel’s shop harkening back to the days when the Registry of Motor Vehicles operated downtown. Joseph Lewis’ photo hangs framed on the wall of Kiley’s shop.
Although they build signs and carve posts in their shops, Lebel and Kiley are typically working at a client’s location or a marina, painting a sign or window or the side of a boat. Their more complicated projects can take months, but Lebel said hand-painted signs endure weather and time better than their plastic counterparts.
“It’s definitely a lost art,” said Kiley.
The pair draw inspiration from Lynn architecture and signs that have survived the decades.
“Lynn is great. You can walk around and see all the fine work that was done,” Lebel said.
Lebel is Kiley’s tenant but they run their own businesses and lend each other a helping hand when the opportunity arises. Lebel helped Kiley work on a mural for The Oceanview in Nahant and the pair share a paint “spray booth.”
“We help each other. She motivates me,” Kiley said.
The pair hire part-time employees and Kiley would like to pass on his skills, if the opportunity arose, to Lynn Vocational Technical Institute students.