Few if any cities value local culture as much as New Orleans, but even the Crescent City has to navigate modern realities of change. And as new residents move in or new businesses replace old ones, some beloved bits of the city’s artistic fabric occasionally need intentional preservation. Case in point: the work of Lester Carey.
For “over 42 years,” according to one piece of the artist’s work, Lester Carey had been hand-lettering and hand painting signs across New Orleans. Advertising everything from auto shops and grocers to bars and chapels, Carey’s work started from a simple commercial core (NextCity profiled him in 2017, noting Carey would even offer retouches to businesses for $10 or $15). His work, however, evolved into a unique part of the city’s visual language: an overall style emerged through hundreds of pieces signed “L.C.,” yet each had a few individual traces of flair to make it stand apart from others.
Carey never became rich or even moderately famous; in fact, at times he even battled demons like alcohol and bouts of homelessness before passing away in 2017. But over the course of decades of work, his aesthetic may have become as representative of New Orleans as a fleur-de-lis. He painted “quirky signs in an increasingly generic world,” as an obit in the local paper noted.
“If you compare this—literally something painted on the side of a store to advertise prices—with a Jean-Michel Basquiat, it’s not too far off,” says New Orleans-based Web designer Steven Achord. “Lester had an eye for stuff. But you know what’s kind of heartbreaking? A lot of this stuff that was so unbelievably cool, it’s been painted over. He’s a commercial artist, so if you look at something like the Magnolia Discount Store on Washington Ave., there’s so much cool stuff Lester did on it. But they painted over it because they had to change the prices. I think this Louis Armstrong thing may have been on the side of it.”
So when changes in cost start giving way to changes in city construction, how do you best save the work of a beloved, deceased folk artist for future generations? For Achord and his friend Anthony DelRosario, who’s a photographer and documentarian, the answer seemed obvious—a font, of course.
DelRosario has followed Carey’s work for over a decade, beginning back in 2007 or 2008. He remembers how some friends who had returned early after the storm made a habit of biking around New Orleans simply to take pictures. One day, DelRosario tagged along, and Carey’s particular brand of hand lettering—script and print intertwined, playful symbols scattered throughout, laissez-faire letters with a relaxed lean reminiscent of slow Southern afternoons—jumped out at him.
“I started looking for similar things and saw Lester’s name on a couple of signs,” he says. “Then I started looking for him, and I finally tracked him down on Good Friday 2008.”
Ever since, DelRosario has documented hundreds of Lester Carey originals through his Flickr and Instagram accounts. The photographer has become an ambassador of sorts for Carey’s art, doing things like organizing gallery exhibits or helping Carey’s family turn some of the artist’s work into products through DelRosario’s site, NOLA ‘Nacular (full disclosure: this author lovingly owns one of the Carey T-shirts once carried by local clothing brand, Defend New Orleans). DelRosario even developed a relationship with Carey directly, helping him find other sign painting jobs or selling work for him in order to help raise funds for the off-and-on homeless artist. (“He was definitely surprised that some young guy was interested in his signage,” he recalls.)
And through this nascent bond, DelRosario had the foresight to do something that made preserving Carey’s art in this manner possible: he asked Carey to handwrite a few letters, just to ensure the art would be documented in some manner.
Right type, right time
Ask DelRosario or Achord, and each swears they had the idea before ever mentioning it to the other. DelRosario said seeing someone create a font for a sign-painter elsewhere spawned him to finally act; Achord wanted to pursue it initially as some sort of Sufjan Stevens-project focused on creating a unique typeface for every neighborhood in New Orleans. They finally mentioned it to each other one night while taking in some live music, and the rest soon became history. Carey Font officially went live this summer, and it remains free to download.
DelRosario’s work exhaustively documenting Carey’s art around town and encouraging the artist to put his unique penmanship on paper gave the duo an excellent starting point. And Achord, having 20-plus years of Adobe Illustrator expertise, quickly proved he could just as easily work from photos for any of the more obscure characters that couldn’t be built from scans.
For their font-building workflow, Achord started with a giant Illustrator file where he’d draw upon DelRosario’s source materials and refine all the individual character shapes. Every shape became its own art board, and from there the designer would drop out the boards as SVG files in order to take those for finishing into Ico Moon, a tool Achord says designers often use for icon fonts (and it’s free and open source to boot).
“There are so many different ways to do this, but every time I take a project I try to do it a different way to learn something else,” he tells Ars. “So the next time I do this, I’m probably going to do this another way.”
Surprisingly, Carey’s work included a nearly full gamut of characters despite the seemingly limited scope of business signs: capital Zs and asterisks proved just as available as R-S-T-L-N-E. Occasionally, though, Achord did have to flex some design muscle. “There’s no trademark symbol, for instance, so I had to take that from existing letters,” he says. “But if you look through signs, he did draw things like ampersands and dollar signs and pound symbols—like his asterisk or his tilde is pretty cool.”
Other computer design work included striking the right balance between handwritten aesthetic and the consistency necessary within a usable font (how the curl on a bracket matches the one on an apostrophe, for instance, when there may have been variance in real life).
Folk art can be challenging—it takes many different forms in many different shapes and sizes. For historians, preservationists, documentarians, and the like, that can make this genre hard to preserve. So what DelRosario and Achord have done is truly special: recognizing a unique type of folk work and preserving it in a modern way that’s only possible because of the medium itself. Add to it the cultural-preserving ethos of much of New Orleans, and Carey Font may be the result of a truly one-of-a-kind combo of location, art, era, and method.
“His art is a font, so it felt like something that naturally had to be done,” as DelRosario put it. He has described Carey’s work in the past as uniquely emblematic of the city itself: “straddl[ing] the line of folk art and commercial art—naïve commercial art—much like a metaphor for the city of New Orleans, which straddles the second lines and the Super Bowls.”
Naturally, that kind of passion means DelRosario and Achord have grander ambitions for this project. With this first round of digital preservation behind them, the duo hopes to find time for more soon.
“He’s got a couple different ways of writing—if you look in the background, he’s got this L. His script-handwriting is unbelievably awesome,” Achord says, noting he and DelRosario have already been thinking about script and extended versions of Carey Font. “So I’m going to have to take that directly from signs—it’s not difficult, but it is tedious. We learned you have to think about a lot of things when creating a typeface. I guarantee you I’ll run into a situation where I need an uppercase Z or something like that, but it’ll be fine. Anthony really documented it well—if you go to his Flickr account, it’s out of control.”