Golden Girl: Sign Painter Kelly Golden On Work-Life-Hobby Balance (And Doing It All In A Man's World)
"All I do is think about signs," Kelly Golden says. "I am completely obsessed with them and I’m obsessed with letters." A quick glance around the Detroit-based muralist/sign painter's studio could tell you the same. Or a quick glance at her growing portfolio, spanning from small hand-painted works on walls, windows, motorcycle helmets, show cards and vehicles to large-scale murals in commercial spaces and on buildings for clients like Shinola, Warby Parker, Third Man Records, Library Stree Collective, Starbucks, Carhartt and Faygo to name a few.
After earning her Liberal Arts degree from the University of Michigan, Golden began honing her hand painting skills in award-winning Ann Arbor restaurant Zingerman's art department, where the custom advertising signs for meats and cheese are carefully created. Her next move, greatly inspired by the book "Sign Painters," was to pack up and hit the West Coast to attend Los Angeles Trade Tech (the only trade school left in the U.S. offering a full sign painting-specific course) where she completed one year of a two-year Sign Graphics program. She then returned to the Motor City to work as things were taking off commercially.
Q: What’s it like to be a woman in the sign painting biz?
Kelly: "It's a lot. Not only is it a male dominated field, but so much of my work takes place in male dominated spaces. I’m working in construction sites a lot; it’s layers upon layers of little things all the time and comments that can really wear you down."
Can you give me an example? You’re probably pretty conditioned to this sort of stuff now.
"I've set up a ladder a million times. It’s really easy to put a ladder up, but the second you have fifteen (male) construction workers with their arms crossed all watching you set up a ladder, all of a sudden you start doubting yourself. It’s little stuff like that. But it’s not always bad! A lot of times guys will offer to help me out, and I’ll let them. That’s one less thing I have to do! But it can definitely come off the wrong way and feel condescending. It also comes with trying to sell jobs. I’ve noticed when working with women-owned businesses, they have total faith in me and don’t question my abilities at all. But, if I’m trying to sell a job to a man and it involves a lift rental or some sort of level of difficulty in their mind, there can be this doubt and a lot more questioning that I know male sign painters aren’t dealing with. Then there's the little stuff, too. Like there’s not always a bathroom (laughs)."
For other women in male-dominated industries, what advice do you suggest?
"It's definitely a fine line you learn to walk. If you get too assertive, you're a bitch."
Yep. And it doesn't work that way on the other end, you’re considered a boss handling your business.
"Right. I think a lot of it just comes with confidence and knowing that I know what I’m doing. I try to let my portfolio speak for itself as much as possible. I have this range of work now that I can point to and say, 'yeah I did this job hanging off of a fourteen-story building. And I also did this tiny one-inch lettering on a door.' Confidence is really important."
Any advice for people working for themselves? Particularly the money aspect.
"I think money can be really uncomfortable to talk about. Everyone’s lives revolve around it but we’re not allowed to talk about it, especially women. Sign painting is definitely how I make money, but it’s another one of those fine lines for me because work is not my whole life, and I don’t ever want it to be. Sign painting is my job and I want to work as little as possible (laughs). But on the other side of that coin, sign painting is so much more than a job. It’s got this beautiful rich history and the people involved are so fascinating and it’s a community I am so honored to be a part of. It’s really a privilege to do what I do, I get to change the landscape of where I live."
What’s your ideal work-life balance?
"I want to do it all. I try to say 'yes' to everything. It’s not always the best thing for me, but I don’t like to miss out. So it just becomes a big game of time management. I feel like it's so easy to over-work yourself when you're self-employed, especially if you're doing something you love. Sign painting is awesome, but there's all this other stuff I want to do, too. I try to be really careful about not losing myself, my social life, my friends and my hobbies. There's enough time to do everything, I just wake up a lot earlier now (laughs)."
To keep up with Kelly, her work and her adorable dog, Chili Cheese, follow her on Instagram.