Signs of the Times

“Am I imagining IT, or Are Amazing Ppl In the Arts Dying every other Day?” Cher questioned recently on Twitter after hearing Marvin Lee Aday had died. Like her, I have been struck by the frequency of such news and, like many of you in the past week, I have read articles by Easton residents describing how Coach Meat stepped up as a parent to volunteer for the JBHS girls’ softball team. Heartwarming stories reveal not only his long ties to Connecticut and his residency in neighboring Redding but also give us a glimpse of his good and generous nature.  While social media can often create a depressing echo chamber for bad news, it does have an amazing ability to help us honor the lives of loved ones and allow us to grieve as a community even though much of our world is still struggling with limitations on gatherings. 

In the spirit of celebrating the artistry of another life recently lost, I must share that Robert Leonard, our historical society’s official sign painter, passed away. The news of his death certainly lent a somber cast to the new year for his family and those of us who were fortunate to call him a friend. 

It was especially poignant returning to our office this month to see the last sign he made for us. It was commissioned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Bradley Hubbell Garden this Spring.  The bright and cheery hand-painted emblem, a design dating back to the Easton Garden Club’s founding in 1938, shows three pine trees accompanied by a bouquet of spring flowers.  Bob took great care in hand painting both the image and lettering despite failing health and it is a testament to his lifelong love of history and folk art.

Bob’s Last Sign for the Historical Society of Easton.

A former Connecticut resident, Bob lived in Ridgefield for many years and he and his wife Judith produced beautiful house markers for their customers through their company, Ould Colony Artisans.  Their work can be seen on buildings across New England and they were highly regarded by historical societies and preservationists.  

Judy and Bob Leonard, founders of Ould Colony Artisans.

Widowed for the past six years, Bob was 82 years young and was incredibly active in his field.  He served as a consultant for museum conservation, worked with international folk artisans and shared his techniques at workshops while participating in historic reenactments for living history events.  He was particularly knowledgeable about early American tavern signs and gave a great lecture on the topic at our library in 2019.  Not wanting to disappoint with a cancellation, he drove down from his home in Providence during a torrential rainstorm and even carried in several large replicas to help illustrate his fun talk kicking off our Homes with History Program.  Bob was very fond of Easton and his family had visited it often while living in this state.  He recently marveled that it had escaped decades of unsightly development while maintaining its country charm and natural preserves.

Bob Leonard at his 2019 talk on Early American Tavern Signs at the Easton Public Library.

With their combined skill and training in painting and calligraphy, Bob estimated that he and his wife produced almost 11,000 signs since the start of their business in 1987.  It is interesting to note that in the tradition of colonial shop painting, they hardly ever signed their works.  His receipts for sale however were masterpieces in themselves and if you bought a sign from him, you would have received one of his calligraphic “Bill of Particulars.”  He took pride in everything he did, and he found great joy in his work. Even towards the end of his life facing health challenges, he said he couldn’t be happier and hoped to live a long time to keep making more signs.  

For our town, he produced in little more than two years over two dozen signs on marine grade plywood.  With their improved larger format, his work accommodated both our Society logo as well as extra text and images that could be tailored to each home’s unique history.  These pieces were a marked improvement from the small original signs used by our Society in the early 1970’s when we began noting historic structures.  Back then, they were plain pine boards prepared in the school wood shops and painted by local volunteer artists.  

A few of the signs Bob produced for Easton homeowners.

I will miss Bob. He often would take the time to call to see how I was fairing, sometimes just to say hi and chat a bit about history.  Though he was committed to his old-world craft, he was curious about technology, and loved to learn about our document scanning project.  We discussed recent trends of QR codes and even NFTs but mostly, we spoke about the importance of historic signs in our public spaces where they can preserve layers of memory and allow the past to speak to the present.  He was amused that I never managed to install the sign he made for my home, built in 1760 by David Silliman. He assured me his new plaque was well-crafted and could withstand New England weather, but I had to confess I just loved it too much to place it outside in the elements. So, here it still sits today above my desk, not only marking the history of this house but also, our friendship. 

If you are one of the many who have recently rediscovered the joys of local history and road trips rather than long plane rides, keep your eyes open for Bob’s and Judy’s handiwork.  Chances are, whether you are up in Ipswich or even right here in Fairfield County, you will see Ould Colony Artisan signs in front of history museums, burial grounds, and notable buildings.  And if you bought one of his pieces, cherish it.  It is not only a link to Easton history, but it is a marker of time and memory in a waning tradition of American craftmanship. 

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