Bryan McCormick has seen the writing on the wall. He has, in fact, seen the writing on plenty of walls. And as one of the founders of Vegas Vernacular, he believes it’s his job to document as much of that sometimes garish, sometimes obscure, always unique art of the hand-painted sign as possible—before they disappear forever.
McCormick, who’s lived in a number of metropolitan areas, including Toronto as a youth, knows that rapid change can erase things like sign art, which are part of a city’s landscape. “I saw something very similar in New York in the late 1980s,” McCormick says. “Recessions can artificially preserve many parts of the urban environment, but when we come out of them, these [artifacts] are gone in the blink of an eye.”
The vision for Vegas Vernacular emerged last spring when McCormick and cofounder Mark Johnson made a connection between the Los Angeles low-rise apartment buildings documented in the book Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed by Clive Piercy and the quirky, classic hand-painted signs—such as Charleston Boulevard’s mid-mod-style Galaxy Foam and Fabric—that are ubiquitous in Downtown Vegas. The recent closure of White Cross Drugs and the increase in Downtown redevelopment accelerated their desire to document this form of commercial art. Pat Olson of the Downtown Project connected McCormick and Johnson with photographer Geoffrey Ellis (another co-founder of Vegas Vernacular), whose commitment and experience shooting signs in Memphis, Tennessee, helped propel the local effort.
Although McCormick’s day job is in finance, he has always been a serious student of art. In fact, he once pursued a doctorate in art history at Rutgers University. While McCormick didn’t plan on getting involved with a community-based art startup, the signs were good that he would eventually do something of this nature. “The risk is low enough [for things like this] that you can start projects that can contribute to the community and not have to worry about doing well for yourself,” he says.
Last year, Vegas Vernacular got off the ground and into the public eye with a 200-print, three-gallery show. In 2013, McCormick sees the project moving further along with documenting the signs and looks forward to more in-depth historical research to place those signs in context, making their past—and their future—part of the fabric of the community. But the most exciting development will be a mobile app that lets users browse the streets as they are now and, with a swipe on their device, see historic images of the streets as they used to be.
“It has grown organically,” McCormick says, “to the point where it’s more about stewardship on our part. It’s simply telling us what we need to do now.”