Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Todd Van Hussen’s fingers are red, yellow, blue, and white, with a little bit of green speckled aggressively across his right thumb. He’s wearing a toque, he’s glistening with sweat and nearly done his day’s work.
He’s just stepped off a tiny step ladder on the sidewalk on Wall Street, where he adorned the windows of Wolseley Kombucha with flowers, a shining sun, and a message to "Trust Your Gut."
Van Hussen is a window painter, and he’ll go wherever a translucent piece of glass needs some opacity.
It’s a good business, he says.
Every building has windows, and his company, Real Life Signs, has got steady clients: Tim Hortons gives him a call to paint 60 restaurant franchises every year; Subway and Quiznos reach out when they want to advertise a new deal; the Chamois car wash chain puts him to work frequently; from time to time, McDonald’s restaurants is on the other line when his phone rings; when the Winnipeg Jets make the NHL playoffs, he’s responsible for a good deal of the logos seen plastered on office windows in May and June.
"When all else fails," Van Hussen says of his unique form of advertising, which feels quaint and nostalgic in an era of pop-up ads, "people see the windows."
This spring, when COVID-19 hit the city, Van Hussen was worried: Tim Hortons summer camp day fundraiser was suddenly in jeopardy; restaurants were closing; the Jets’ playoff push ended earlier and with a different kind of heartbreak than normal.
"I didn’t know what to expect," he says, taking a break outside the kombucha shop.
He certainly didn’t expect a bump in business. The first day physical distancing entered the Manitoban lexicon, he got a call from Danali, a clothing store on Grant Avenue; Van Hussen painted a heart and a dove on the front window.
The calls kept coming.
"Sometimes, people want you to know they’re open and, sometimes, they just want you to know they’re grateful," Van Hussen says. "Sometimes, it’s both."
It is a confusing time to do business in Manitoba, and a confusing time to be a consumer. While general guidelines have been handed down across the province for how to proceed, different businesses have different needs, and for every customer who’s called to ask whether they can pop in, there are dozens of others with the same question.
The internet and social media marketing have played a key role in how such businesses provide answers, but the window sign — a somewhat rustic art form reminiscent of an earlier era of advertising — has made a resounding comeback. Instagram ads are a dime a dozen; each window for artists such as Van Hussen represents a blank template to tell the world what’s up in a more purposeful way that reaches even the digitally disconnected.
Sometimes, the results are ad-writing 101 and get straight to the point: "15 per cent off curbside pickup." Other times, they’re downright poetic.
"If spring was a time of uncertainty," reads a Van Hussen window outside Casera Credit Union on St. Anne’s Road. "Let’s make summer the season of possibility."
Van Hussen isn’t the only one holding a paintbrush. Another duo making the rounds are the Travelling Sign Painters — Joseph Pilapil and Bridget Ellen, a pair of Red River College digital multimedia technology grads. They’d taken an interest in lettering, and did a workshop with Rick Wagner of Signmeister before getting their start.
The company started four years ago, painting a sandwich board for Nick’s, a sandwich shop on Broadway. The work spoke for itself, and more calls came in.
When COVID-19 started, their output took a shift as businesses closed doors to the public: they painted signs telling people to wash their hands, and made one urging abstinence from "speaking moistly to each other," a reference to a Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quote.
When business began reopening, the sign painters were called to duty.
"At this point, it’s all about vibrant colours and happy colours," Pilapil says, while painting a window outside of Assiniboine Avenue ice-cream shop Fete, reminding customers it is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
"With social media, there’s always noise," Pilapil says. "It helps to have that instruction on their window. The sign can do a bit of the talking."
Van Hussen, 46, started painting windows when he was 24. His uncle owned the Husky gas station on Devonshire Drive, and his usual painter cancelled on him. He asked his nephew to take over, and paid him $100.
"I said, ‘People get paid for this?’" Van Hussen recalls.
Around Christmas that year, Van Hussen dressed up as Santa Claus and walked to businesses to offer his services to paint a Yuletide message on the windows. Many said yes, and some are still clients today.
Before painting windows, Van Hussen made a lot of oil paintings.
"I wanted to think that would be a good business, but who wants an oil portrait in Winnipeg? Let’s be real," he says. "People want advertising and signage yesterday. I’m lucky to have found a niche.
"People want messages of hope. People are thanking (of) front-line workers. And not just the doctors, but the grocery workers, the bus drivers — the little people who make stuff happen."
With his paint-covered hands, Van Hussen makes that stuff happen. He packs up his acrylics, and drives off.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.
Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.