Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Life As A Billboard Artist

I met Ken "the Dauber" Pridgeon this year at the Baytown Fine Rides car show on Texas Avenue. He was seated comfortably on a folding chair, artist's pad on his lap, doing what he does – sketching in preparation to paint. He's a friendly, approachable artist, humble man, avid teacher and a local treasure, to be sure.

Recently Ken and I met at Starbucks on Garth road to discuss his painting depicting Iraqi Freedom Purple Heart Recipient, Sgt. Nick Marshall and "Dauber" in his usual entertaining and charming way began to expand on this particular painting's" story. Ken is a passionate veteran artist and his visions come to life in his paintings. This is his two-part story in his own words and his emotion-laden telling brought tears to our eyes.

"Well, I started out as simply Ken Pridgeon, USAF 10 years - electronics technician and artist to the boys. You see we didn't have color photographs in 1953 so I would make Sepia tone wedding pictures into color photos for the guys wives and families when I was in Germany. I was 17 years old and it seems like yesterday that I spent my 21st birthday in Paris, France - bleep! (Editors note: He laughed at this point)

I got out of the Air Force in 1963 and did not know how to talk civilian. I must skip some things and go straight to what I had dreamed of doing, from when I did my first sketch – become a billboard artist (be careful what you wish for!). My first day painting, (wow, what a day!) they put me on a ball hanging from a crane, with a 25-pound hook on each shoulder and hoisted me up 75 feet to the top of a billboard over on I-45. Let me explain, normally, instead of hooking onto the painter, they put the hooks 20 feet apart on each side of the boardwalk and hung what was known as "Falls" onto them, so we could pull the "Stage" which was another word for the walk-board that painters pulled up to stand on, while they laid out the sign.

We painted automobiles, cigarettes packs, whiskey bottles, Marlboro cowboys and waterfalls for Kool cigarettes. We also did all the Old Grandad whiskey ads. Every year we painted the new automobile billboards and nobody even knew we were there or cared and we painters got zero recognition for laying our lives on the line every day. We were invisible in our trade and the hazards were many. We painted one billboard each day for about $7 an hour. It was dangerous work and we lost many good artists in the time I was painting billboards due to fatal and crippling falling accidents and it was quietly talked about in hush tones by us painters and then hidden away in the backs of our minds.

If people are interested in why I paint so rough I guess it is because we painted up 65-feet above the ground using rags for brushes. Grabbing a rag from the box we'd just daub onto the red, black and yellow paint for the wood grain backgrounds. We would mix up a good background color on the rag and go horizontally across the board wiggling as we went for the wood grain, then daub into the black and red for the knotholes. You get the idea.

For the Kool cigarette waterfall we would do almost the same thing except use the blue, white, and tallow to make the pretty water bubbles and pat-pat-pat for the foam at the bottom. By the way, we were good artists! When it was raining, we would paint the signs inside with brushes because "the bid boys" (sponsors) were watching. We painted some fine portraits of the Mist Scotch girls and the KIKK disk jockeys and people running for mayor and other political offices.

Well, I did this for a few years and even bought a family plot at the cemetery so my folks would have a place to put me. There were so many ways for a person to lose their life doing this kind of work and I didn't want to be a financial burden if I fell. The biggest problem with working up high like that is even if a bomb goes off under you, you have to stay focused on what you are doing or you will over react and if you do - you are a goner. Speaking of distractions, the day I finally quit painting billboards, I was working my way around a monster-sized billboard staying real close to it, as it is a very narrow walk board up there. I startled a pigeon nesting under the board. He flew up through my jacket and out under my chin with lots of flapping, flopping, and scratching. I looked down 65 foot to the railroad tracks below and of course it could have been a feather bed and I would not have survived the fall. To make a long story shorter, I climbed down thanking the Lord for every step and went home never to return to the dangers of being a billboard artist".

Note: Next week Ken will tell us about his "Dauber" nickname, his dreams about teaching young artists and the future of the Baytown Art League's new building on Texas Avenue.

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