Forrest Wozniak makes working art for working people.
Whether it’s a car shop in a South Minneapolis business node, an Uptown café or a Downtown advertising agency, when the 37-year-old sign painter takes on a project, he does it for more than money. It’s for the people behind the businesses and nonprofits he serves.
“Sign painting is for folks,” he said.
The Blaisdell, Icehouse, Blackbird Cafe, Bluestem Bar, Lowry Hill Meats and Common Roots Cafe are among the Southwest area mainstays adorned with his work.
Sign painting was once common in the business world. Shops and businesses needed a competent painter to make signage that told the world who they were and what they sold.
Modern printing techniques and computer design has changed that for many businesses, but local shops in Minneapolis and across the nation still go to skilled painters to help distinguish their operation, which keeps artisans like Wozniak up on ladders and lifts adding color to storefronts and buildings.
“Sign painting has survived the test of time,” Wozniak said.
The reason, he thinks, is the microeconomics of small commercial nodes that pop up in small towns and city neighborhoods: the corner with the drug store, the barbershop, the cafe.
“That’s the culture I relate to,” he said.
Wozniak believes his and his clients’ businesses are the antithesis of the large corporate monopolies that dominate modern life. He makes signs for businesses that make goods and provide services people can’t find on an app or order off Amazon. It’s how he supports small businesses and the communities they serve.
“I consider it to be a purpose, because I don’t like corporatism,” he said.
After a career working out of rented spaces, Wozniak converted the garage of his Bryant home into a dedicated workspace in 2017. He does about 75 percent of his work on job sites, so moving the workspace to his own property has helped cut down on extra travel time and simplified his life.
The garage is full of signs that caught Wozniak’s eye over the years. He does his work on a paint-spattered wooden table in the middle of the room or at a massive easel equipped with an electrified sheet where he can cut stencils. Wozniak is a big man, over 6 feet tall, with powerful hands that make big gestures when he speaks and a beard beginning to gray. He keeps a short pencil tucked behind his ear, with specks of paint dotting his sweatshirt and work pants.
A South Minneapolis native, Wozniak has been painting professionally since about 2001. Back then his method was to approach businesses short on signage and pitch them. If they didn’t have a sign, he could paint them one.
Wozniak was not a formally trained artist and got his start working in trade crafts. He had stints working in furniture, construction and masonry, all the while painting signs on the side. In 2005, he started working with prominent sign painter Phil Vandervaart. By 2008, sign painting was about half of his work.
“In about 2010, I basically said, ‘You have to bet on success,’” he said.
That year, he went into the trade full time and was interviewed for both the book and movie “Sign Painters.”
Now Wozniak’s portfolio speaks for itself.
“When I started, we were painting for car mechanics and coffee shops and now we’re painting for interior designers,” he said.
Danny Schwartzman, the owner of Common Roots, said he hired Wozniak because he respected the artist’s modern take on a traditional craft and style, much like what Schwartzman had in mind for his café, an updated version of an old-school nosherie. He said Wozniak’s attention to detail and respect for the space created signage that helps shape the way customers feel about the shop.
“It’s really in keeping with the place,” Schwartzman said.
It’s not all small shops either. Last year, the Minnesota Twins hired Wozniak to paint two pieces in Target Field, including a souvenir-style ticket stub from the ballpark’s opening day in 2010 that can be seen near Gate 34.
Wozniak’s style trends old-fashioned, but that, he said, is sort of the nature of sign painting and hand-drawn art in general. Left to his own devices, he uses a traditional style.
“Our work just looks old,” he said.
He draws inspiration from local artists such as Mike Lynch, whose portraits of blue-collar life in Minneapolis Wozniak has enjoyed since he was a child, and from sign painters of the past, many of whom were aspiring illustrators putting their artistic skills to a more practical use.
Wozniak considers himself lucky to get to practice an art that connects him to the city he grew up in and the community-oriented businesses he respects.
“I am grateful every day that this is what I get to do,” he said.