Edward Fella: Letters on America

Graphic designers are ostensibly packrats. We (and I say this from experience) hoard all manner of stuff in an effort to fill our minds, if not also our walls, shelves, flatfiles, and other receptacles, with inspirational stimuli. My own current obsession involves collecting mini-mannequins from the 1930s and 40s—24 inch (or thereabouts) fully clothed (or not) reductions of life-size mannequins. I don’t have a clue why I am so obsessed, but such mystery is the essence of obsession (sounds like a perfume, eh?). I am, however, knowingly passionate about exhibitions and books that reveal other people’s obsessions (as long as its not involving cats). And my most recent interest is a book about an obsession that has so totally captured my attention that I have repeatedly poured over it since receiving a copy. Edward Fella: Letters on America is a collection of hundreds of Fella’s own Polariods of other peoples’ hand drawn signs and graphic minutiae seen and recorded while travelling across America. Accompanying this wealth of material is his own ingenious lettering, which has earned him a following as an artist, designer, teacher, and progenitor of the “new” typography.

You may, however, ask: Isn’t this just another one of those compilations of nostalgic or vernacular memorabilia and found artifacts?

Well, yes and no. Technically speaking Fella’s book fits into the genre inhabited by John Baeder’s Sign Language: Street Signs as Folk Art, a photographic collection of the untutored artifacts of rural American culture, and Arnold Schwartzman’s Designage: The Art of the Decorative Sign, a sampler of antique commercial store signs from Europe. Indeed both are personal obsessions raised to the level of historical documentary. But in addition to being completely different material, Fella’s book is more rooted in personal revelation and mystification than the others. This is such a total immersion into the stuff that makes Fella an artist that it is hard not to be drawn into his world, even if commonplace hand-wrought writing and his own uncommon hand-drawn letters are not your primary fascination. In fact, once cannot help but be absorbed by this man’s appreciation (and love) for the untutored and unfettered expressions of everyday life. It is also interesting to see what import these photographs (a fraction of Fella’s huge collection) have on his own life and work.

Fella became something of a legend in the graphic design world over a decade ago after coming out of the closet of commercial art. His main body of work, scores and scores of posters produced for art galleries and cultural venues, suggests he is a naif, although nothing is further from the truth. He is, however, an iconoclast. Fella worked for almost three decades as a bullpen “commercial artist” in the Motor City doing everything from designing brochures to drawing illustrations, some for the automobile industry. He was not a “star,” although he did get a few pieces into art director annuals. Then one day, this journeyman gave up his job and enrolled in graduate school – the Cranbrook Academy – and started making hand-hewn graphics that echoed Dada, Futurism, Surrealism but combined these anarchic traits in a stew of ragged, jagged, and chaotic personal expression. In addition to his studies, Fella also taught. Through his unique blend of homespun practicality and theoretical discourse he was an inspiration to his fellow students. Today he asserts he is retired from the commercial art business, although he continues to make posters and when asked letters certain jobs. Indeed lettering is his painting. (At my request he did rendered word-illustrations for the 1999 special Summer issue of the New York Times Book Review, some of which are reproduced in this volume). He’s further devoted himself to teaching at CalArts, which allows him time to roam the country as a kind of Jack Kerouac of the graphic culture.

Letters on America is Fella’s visual On The Road. The book includes is an impressionistic text by Louis Blackwell and a biographical analysis by Lorraine Wild, but Fella’s only words (save for the acknowledgements) are in the pictures themselves, and those in the photos are by others. This works just fine. Although Fella is erudite when giving a lecture, the last thing needed here is a pedantic disquisition on why found art is so meaningful and unheralded. Actually, it hasn’t been unheralded for a long time. The book, designed by Fella and Wild, is akin to a ledger of police mug shots. The shiny square Polaroids are laid out page after page, in equal, tidy rows with edges touching, each framing a unique experience in Fella’s field of vision. And his vision is truly compelling. He has an insatiable hunger for what we often take for granted. Sure, we all see these makeshift signs and painted walls everywhere, but do we really see them? And if we do, can we truly appreciate them as more than just kitsch?

The scrawls and letterforms recorded in Fella’s pictures are indeed primitive. He ignores the professional, just as he rejected his own professional career. But he is aware that in recent years primitivism has become an antidote to slick professionalism. In fact, Primitivism has become its own professional style. Yet Fella stands against the trend. He savors these artifacts for their inherent honest beauty and gutsy rawness. If the book teaches anything it is that respect is a major component of his obsession. To copy or mimic this stuff would be disrespectful, it would be exploitation. There is no ulterior motive here, no pretense. This is not a “cool” book compiled simply to showcase the author’s coolness. Neither is it a masturbatory exercise that draws attention to the author’s ego like the recent crop of “designer/artist books.” Letters on America documents a world that we see but don’t see. It focuses on his individual relationship to the virtues of this world.