Weekly Feature: Spotlight on Dave "Letterfly" Knoderer
Spotlight on Dave "Letterfly" Knoderer
As a kid, my mother noticed I had a gift so she encouraged me with sketchbooks and art workshops for children.
After high school, I ran away with the circus to play drums and eventually had my own act performing with horses and my mule, Betty. During travel downtime, a sign-painter showed me how to make block letters, drop shadows, a pounce pattern and which brushes to use for lettering on different surfaces and wet blended pictorials. People began taking notice of my work and I was approached by Clyde-Beatty Cole Bros Circus to paint all forty of their trucks.
After my circus time, I apprenticed further while working at two different sign shops in the mid-70s, attaining my hand with the brush, learned the five basic signman alphabets, the ability to scale up to any size using a yardstick, composition, layout skills, and the work discipline of the journeyman.
Being a lettering man, I invented the name “Letterfly” and created a winged-horse logo.
I was a Michigan sign-painter for years, seeking challenging projects. I found an interesting outlet painting at the carnivals. They liked Victorian scrollwork, animated sign-work and scenery, clown faces and interesting décor for the horses on the merry-go-round. It wasn’t just sign-painting anymore. I began airbrushing T-shirts at the fairs. I designed storefronts, winning a “Signs of the Times” award, and did gold leaf on glass.
When the computer began to take over the sign trade in the ’80s, I became the resident artist at Lazydays RV in Tampa, Florida, airbrushing murals on the backs of motorhomes. That morphed into mural-painting the interiors of the new Harley-Davidson dealerships that sprang up in the late ’90s. Being around the bikers introduced me to the next chapter of my creative career; being a traveling motorcycle artist.
When I’m not traveling and pinstriping for the bikers, you can find me in my Florida studio handpainting everything from signs, hot rods, and motorcycles to custom-artwork and murals for clients within the state.
An Interview with Dave “Letterfly” Knoderer
What type of artwork are you doing more of these days? I assume the sign painting work is harder to come by due to people opting for vinyl.
As an artist doing one-up work, I assume a role quite different from the computerized production shops. I mostly serve motorcycle and automobile owners with hand-painted work but also get interesting projects like the performers' entrance archway I am building for a circus and interior murals for homeowners.
Can you briefly describe the five basic sign man alphabets and why it’s important to learn them?
Every sign man needs to learn the basic Block letter. From there he learns the upper and lower case Roman or thick and thin alphabet. From there he develops his own script, a casual “quick stroke” letter, and the final font to have in his repertoire is “old English” modified. From this repertoire, he can make interesting layouts and compositions. Every artist goes from this foundation to learn other alphabets and imitate sensational fonts.
What would you tell someone who is looking for a sign and are leaning towards vinyl?
Sign work is cheaper using vinyl. Anyone shopping for price will be satisfied with alternatives to the labor-intensive manner of hand-painted work. I cannot compete with the makers of signs today. Shoppers who want the real thing expect to pay more for traditional hand-painted work.
How often do you host workshops at your studio in Florida?
I began transforming my shop into a situation to teach others twelve years ago and teach once a year for one week at the end of January/February. Plenty of information about the Custom Paint Workshops is on the blog page: http://custom-paint-workshops.blogspot.com/
What can someone expect to learn from one of your workshops?
The interests of the individual students drive the curriculum. I get a variety of students with varied abilities and interests. I tailor-make the instruction each student receives, due to the vast repertoire accumulated over my forty-plus year-career, into something that provides them the best result.
What kind of client work do you most look forward to?
Since all production work is satisfied today by computer offerings, the hand-painted artist handles “one-up” work. Today, I concentrate on creating traditional pinstriping on motorcycles, automobiles, and hot-rods with the ability to provide old-time, sign-painting skills, hand-created pictorials, faux effects and gold-leaf gilding for a variety of end-users. My clients are pretty much “Ma and Pa USA.”
Do you find that your clients allow you a lot of the creative freedom or are they pretty specific in what they want?
I have people who come to me with a clear idea of what they want, people who don’t have an idea but know they want something, and people who come with a bad idea. It is my responsibility to guide them toward what will end up being a good idea for their project. When the customer trusts me and turns me loose, they get the best results.
When it comes to kustom art, after being at this for four decades, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
The basics for my career seem to change every decade. Still, freelance painting by hand for my entire career makes me an anomaly. I am grateful to have learned during my circus days how to place myself in the proximity of others. The business of painting requires entertaining an endless stream of new customers. Since I travel extensively, I have developed a following in a large region as a result.
What are some of the big and exciting projects that you have upcoming or that you’re working on now?
Starting as a sketch on a napkin over dinner, I have been commissioned to fabricate and decorate an entrance archway for a circus. A fire engine in Ft. Lauderdale is waiting for pinstriping and old-time gold leaf décor. Motorhome owners use me to create a graphic stripe scheme so their tow-car will match the swoopy designs on the motorhome.
What projects are you most proud of in your art career?
The “making” crafts are so vast and I have had so many opportunities to work with talented mentors who expanded my abilities and visions. Several landmark projects raise the bar, new customers review what has taken place in the past and challenge me to make their request even more stunning. There are more specialties to explore that I find irresistible — I just need another lifetime or two.
Ok, please describe your circus horse and mule act!
I became fascinated with the art forms of circus horsemanship while playing drums in the circus band as a teen. Over the years, I became proficient at “Haute E’cole,” or the dancing form of performing on a horse. I made three dancing horses in a thirty-year period. I accidentally met and acquired a baby mule thirty years ago and began to train her. Betty and I developed an act where she appeared to defy my requests (although she was trained that way) and we did a themed comedy act as, “Gold Dust and the Old Cuss” (a gold prospector). Betty did more tricks and had more skill than any of my horses. I still have her—she is retired today and is still as sweet as ever.
What would be your top three tips for those just starting out?
- Put yourself in situations where you are in front of people and BE PAINTING (entertainment) while there.
- Be cordial and answer the dumb questions while realizing they are not familiar with the trade and just want to start a conversation.
- Interview your admirer to find out what you could do for them to create a win/win situation and go from there.
Just like playing the piano, you must paint every day to get good at it.
Any final thoughts for the Gnarly readers?
I have several extensively painted-up Volkswagen buses that will be a curiosity in the future as more decorative options get satisfied by the computer and hand-painted art becomes rare. I want these vehicles and my bike to be in a museum for future generations to enjoy. I also want to hand down not only the knowledge accumulated as an artist who creates with paint but also the philosophy that has allowed me to thrive my entire career. That has prompted me to write my book, “Tales of a Traveling Airbrush.”
I have many people in my life to thank. Without talented mentors, I would have only grown to a certain level. Now I seek to be an inspiration in the lives of others. I have created the annual Custom Paint Workshops for this purpose. We grow as we seek opportunities to lift each other up.
“We make a living with what we’ve been given and we make a life with what we give.”
-Sir Winston Churchill
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