Alighting in Astoria: A Permanent Light Capsules Legacy
A wall of ghost signs brought back to life with a permanent Light Capsules installation.
The process of restoring/repainting ghost signs is a hotly debated topic: should it be done at all, and how can it be done authentically, especially in the case of multi-layered signs (aka palimpsests)?
But no-one can argue with Craig Winslow's awe-inspiring approach, and the painstaking work he puts into his 'Light Capsules'. These involve recreating the graphics of the fading painted signs, and projecting them back onto the original walls at night to show how they might once have looked.
Now, in Astoria, Oregon, one of these Light Capsules is taking up permanent residence.
Craig's Light Capsules started on a road trip from Portland, Maine, to Portland Oregon, where each night he was playing with his projection mapping skills in a different location. One evening, he chanced upon a ghost sign and realised that the medium of light would be a neat way to bring back its opacity without interfering with the original faded artefact. He explains:
"Using projection for restoration is non-damaging, and non-invasive. It provides a strong preservation solution that traditional mediums can't provide. Using light as a medium, we can visually explore the stories of every layer, seeing how a building has changed throughout the years."
The idea was gradually refined, and then given a huge boost when Craig was awarded an Adobe Creative Residency. These provide funding for creative projects, and Craig was given a year to develop the Light Capsules concept, delivering an extended series of installations in the process. (I was proud to assist in bringing Light Capsules 008–012 to London in 2016.)
Light Capsule 004
The Light Capsule in Astoria, Oregon, is what Craig describes as "the first 'big' installation of the series" during the early part of his Adobe Creative Residency. Not only did the wall feature multiple signs, including layers in palimpsest, but some of these advertised, and were likely painted by, the Astoria Sign Co.
The initial installation took place in 2016 at 254 9th Street, Astoria, Oregon, and was the fourth in the series which now extends to 37 in total.
In addition recreating the signs themselves, Craig also likes to get under the skin of the companies that they advertised. In London I was able to offer up the research from my walking tours and, in the case of the installation in Astoria, Oregon, some of these historical notes are included on the projections themselves.
In total there are eight businesses represented across the wall and the layers on it: Astoria Harness & Top Shop; Carl Laine & Sons Tailor Shop (1930-1942); Astoria Sign Co.; Nyman Judge Inc.; Buster Brown Shoes (1925-1939); Emil Nyman Shoes; Athens Grocery; and Radio Service Co.
Finding archival photos is the holy grail of recreating accurate graphics, but these images are typically few and far between. However, in this case, a picture shared by Sara's Old Photos on Facebook "blew the lid off the mystery surrounding the round medallion on the left side of the wall".
However, as with all historical research, some questions remain open, and Craig still has one outstanding piece to unlock:
"Athens Grocery is a bit of a mystery at the moment; the letters fit but we can't find any reference to a grocery store of that name."
The Process of Permanence
Last year Craig collaborated with Matt Cohen at ghostsigns.ca to create the world's first permanent Light Capsule in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The project was carried out in parallel with this one in Astoria, Oregon, and required an iterative process to get the mapping of the projections just right.
Historically, Craig has been present for his temporary installations, with a rig including the projector and his laptop with the mapping software. To deliver a permanent installation requires the creation of a printed piece of glass that produces the image when light from the projector passes through it.
"The technical process to get everything perfect took some revisions, as you can expect when trying to align gobo light fixture technology so precisely to a wall. Each slight change meant reprinting a physical small piece of glass, driving to Astoria, and repositioning. Through this process, I grew a close partnership with the gobo manufacturer Rosco and am now a Rosco Ambassador, helping to refine their workflow for precise alignment mapping." — Craig Winslow
The project's funders, building owners Marcus and Michelle Liotta, originally committed to one projector for the main portion of the wall with the Astoria Sign Co. / Carl Laine & Sons palimpsest. However, the discovery of the details on the wall to the left of this led to Craig funding a second projector himself for a more complete installation.
The permanent installation has also been recognised with an informative plaque, fabricated by the local sign and sign painting firm Studio Sign Co. / @studiosignco.