The Woman Who Dresses Up Windows

Have you ever been jolted to action by a witty advertisement on a storefront? Or laughed at a hilarious comic character plastered on a commercial vehicle? Chances are that at some point, you have been an unsuspecting witness to the work of window painters.

If ads are really effective, you don't notice how or where they were presented. All you remember is how they made you feel. Yet in spite of the fact that their creative mastery largely goes unnoticed, some artists are so dedicated to the craft of sign art that they have actually chosen to make it their life’s work. Kim O'Brien is one of these artists working with a not-so-common medium. She is so fond of windows, she has made a career out of painting on them!

Kim specializes in window painting, but also offers hand-painted signs on various surfaces, as well as murals and other advertising materials. In addition to traditional paint, she uses liquid chalk for her window designs.

The "Draw" of the Cartoon

We first "met" Kim online when we came across her festive designs for a car dealership. Her holiday cartoons on various storefront windows in Arizona seemed like a fun take on conventional marketing. Thus began our interest in a lesser-known traditional art form. Along the way, we got to know this woman entrepreneur and how her love affair with windows began.

Once Upon a Time, Before eBay

When she was 10 years old, Kim's family started an auction company. She painted the sign on the window of their new building. That was her first professional window sign job. “I had no training, but it was important to me to help my family business be successful,” she recalls.

Teachers of Life

Years later, Kim met her mentor, Jack Spencer, a skilled sign writer. As his apprentice, she started with routine tasks like paint prep and brush cleaning. “I watched intently for many months before I was allowed to try my hand at the skill,” she remembers. Her other source of inspiration is a favorite artist, Norman Rockwell. “He was always portraying everyday life in a way that touched our hearts and reminded us how much even the little things mean.”

Single Moms: Superheroes Without Capes

Kim’s days weren’t always sunny. She experienced what it was like being a single mother bringing up young children. If in previous years, purely artistic matters had motivated her, circumstances forced a change toward the practical: “Providing for my family was my driving force.” She reasoned that if she were her own boss, she would be able to spend quality time with her children while they were growing up. So she set up her own business.

Listen to Your Mother

Throughout those tough early years, Kim drew upon her mother’s wisdom: “She taught me as a young child that I could achieve absolutely anything that I put my mind to. This confidence gave me the strength and drive to never give up and to definitely be successful.” She passed this on to her children, who inherited her artistic inclination.

Today, as young adults, Kim's children put their artistic talent to use whenever they need extra income to get through college. “I don't know if any of them will actually become professional artists,” Kim muses, but she is thankful that they can always tap into their sign painting skills as a backup plan.

Painting in Various Climates

Over the years, Kim has painted signs and murals for businesses around the country, braving all kinds of weather: from battling ice and snow in the Colorado mountains, to sweating it out in the damp, humid regions of the Midwest, to baking in the warm, dry climate of Phoenix, Arizona, where she is now based with her husband. Arizona is perhaps the best venue for her art, because as she claims, “Almost every day is a good painting day!”

Kim views window painting as one of the most rewarding jobs imaginable. What started out as a project for her family business turned into a full-fledged career that has spanned over 25 years. Her company, A-Z Window Painting, is proof that being an artist can be profitable, even without achieving monumental fame.

Artists Are Not Meant to Starve

Another tenet ingrained into the young Kim was the ability to sell—which later proved crucial to her business. Fortunately, her parents were in sales, so developing her business acumen was a natural progression. This provided the backdrop to Kim’s desire to dispel a tired stereotype: “I did not want to be a ‘starving artist,’ so I became a sign painter. I hope to be an example to young artists. I want them to see that their talent can be used to promote business and to sustain their livelihood, if they so choose.”

Artists do not usually make great business people, nor vice-versa. Kim, however, is a rare combination of both, possibly due to her parents’ influence. She flexed her marketing chops with the company slogan: “Signs don't cost money; they make money, and they work 24 hours per day, seven days per week!” The many testimonials she gets from clients across the country attest to the truth of her promises.

Is Her Art Being Phased Out?

People think the sign painting trade is on the way out, but Kim and her fellow window artists prove otherwise. Kim started a website in 2013, holds a database that puts business owners in touch with window artists nationwide. “Our goal is to feature at least one professional window sign painting artist in every major metropolitan area across the United States,” she offers.

Computers Versus Human Hands

There really was a period when it seemed Kim’s trade was about to be taken over by automated sign making—a formidable threat. Businesses adopted the new technology because it was cheaper and faster.

Kim believes, however, that although many brick-and-mortar businesses have gone online, there will always be a place for hand-painted window signage, which “has proven to be one of the most economical, eye-catching forms of advertising. Some of our most successful restaurant chains, retail stores and consumer service oriented businesses continue to use it. These bright, artistic designs stand out among the rest of the computer-generated signs that have become almost invisible in the sea of posters and billboards that flood our streets and byways.”

Today, the traditional and the high-tech exist symbiotically. Kim reiterates: “I think (manual signage) is making a comeback. With the help of social media and the Internet, artists are able to make themselves and their talent visible to the masses.”

Perks of Artisanal Advertising

Kim claims her professional satisfaction comes from audience reaction: “One extremely satisfying part of the trade is I get to see the expressions of people watching from the other side of the glass. Some watch intently for hours. Others keep checking back—as if planning to someday try their own hand at it. The best part is presenting the finished window sign to the customer. When I see the look of delight on their face, it just makes my day!”

Passing On the Knowledge to Future Generations

Kim hopes to encourage a new generation of sign painters to carry on the tradition of sign painting by hand. She views her website as a tool to help keep the trade alive and prosperous. “It is an art not easily replicated by computers. It outperforms any computerized sign, because it is created with inspiration and purpose direct from the soul of the artist,” she asserts.

In Retrospect...

Kim has time to smell the roses now: “I am more apt to notice wondrous events happening everyday. Life can be difficult, but is also almost always rewarding in the end.” She hopes this message will shine through her artwork for all to see.

We are happy to have crossed paths with Kim. It isn’t everyday that we get to feature an unconventional artist. Do you know of exceptional ones we can profile? Introduce them to us via the comment box.