20 Questions with Sign It's Owner Noella Cotnam

SPECIAL SIGNS-Noella Cotnam's first drawing found itself a place of honour in her school classroom, and today her award-winning signs can be around the world. The Williamstown area designer/owner behind Sign-It recommends never being afraid to ask for help and making time for lots of practice to be successful.

Noella Cotnam is a country girl at heart. The designer/owner behind Sign-It, she's the daughter of Cecil and Theresa Cotnam, and has four siblings, Lorraine, Andy, Mary and Adele. A graduate of General Vanier Secondary School, Noella completed St. Lawrence College's fine arts program, with also some studies in graphics.

She went on to further studies at the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto, but wasn't fond of the big city, so she returned this area. She pursued studies in drafting at St Lawrence College in Cornwall, ON and was actually hired to teach trades drafting. It was during this time she was recruited by Aviation Electronics, in Montreal, to draft flight simulators. The daily commute, however, proved too much for the country gal and she found mechanical drafting employment closer to home in Alexandria.

In 1983 she and Nancy Beaudette formed the award-winning company, Sign-It. Signs produced by the company may be found the world-over, from Guam and Beirut, to Greece, England and Washington, DC. A total of three dozen or so awards have been given to the company. Most recently,they include these Signs of the Times Awards: 1st Place Commercial Sign (BrookValley Grill, Ramada Inn), 3rd Place Commercial Projects (Schnitzels) and Honourable Mention (Humphries Farm).

Noella sits on the Cornwall Business Enterprise Centre advisory board. When she's not making signs, she's an avid student of the fiddle. She resides near Williamstown.

Q1. Do you remember creating any artwork as a child? "I do. The very first one I did. I was in Grade 1 or 2. It was a drawing of lion or tiger. The reason I did it was because my brother did a drawing and got ooo's and ahhh's, so I thought if I do one, I would too. I brought it into school and the teacher put it on the wall next to the door. I proceeded to bring one in every day until she said, "That's enough!" From then on I was known as the artist in the class."

Q2. How did you get into carving? "A customer came and asked if I could do a carved sign for them and I said, "I sure can!" I never did one before! In one of my sign magazines, a fellow in Vermont taught sign carving, so I registered for the course. I learned how to carve and do gold leaf. I have that first sign back now, it was for Rivier Insurance. He needed a For Sale sign, so I traded him for it.

Q3. If you didn't do what you do for a living, what would you be? "Oh, my god. I'd be an architect. I would design Frank Gerry-style buildings, like the new addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Q4. What's your favourite song?  "Bang a Gong, by T-Rex. It's got a mean bass line."

Q5. What's the strangest request you've had for a design?  "Carving the six-foot beaver was unusual. He had a walking staff, backpack and Tilley hat that was made out of styrofoam. I've done four of them for Parks Canada. There's the Hiking Beaver and Eco Chef Beaver, both in Tobermory, plus the Discovery Beaver in Hamilton. Then I have a Skateboard Beaver that travels around with the Parks Canada Traveling Exhibition.

Q6. What design has been the greatest challenge for you? "We were hired to letter the Nutrite logo on the grain elevator in Cornwall. I was terrified of heights. We had to go out on scaffolding set up by the roof of it. I slid across it on my bum, I couldn't stand up tohold the pattern. I didn't move off theplank during the whole lunch hour. That was a challenge for me. I have no trouble with heights now.

Q7. What's the most unusual place one of your pieces is now residing? "It'd say the one in Kuwait. It's a 10-ft Second Cup disk, all sandblasted. It's situated at the International Finance Center in a marble archway. It needed to becrated and shipped in two pieces.

Q8. What's your best advice for someone who wants to pursue this as a career? "Never be afraid to ask for help from other sign people. And practice, practice, practice. Learn other disciplines, too. Fill your head up with visual elements of reference.

Q9. Which award has meant the most to you? "I think the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce Breakthrough Award 2001. We received it for hosting the Wall Dog Jam in 2000. This was something dear to our hearts. We were able to combine a really close sign community with our home community and leave something everlasting.

Q10. What would be your ultimate design? "I'd love to design an outdoor sculpture. I think fabrication would be most fun. Probably a welded piece out of metal.

Q11. What's your material of choice to work in?  "I really love solid bass wood. Any kind of solid wood, really. It's a lot harder to use than some of my sign material, like foam, so it takes quite a bit more muscle. There's something about using a mallet and chisel one chip at a time. There's a tipping point where you know you succeed.

Q12. What was it like drafting flight simulators?  "I'd like to say it was boring, lots of straight lines, very technical, everything to scale. You had to be very careful with sizes. But I liked the discipline and formality of it. 

Q13. What course did you really dislike in school? "I liked everything. Honestly. I didn't apply myself, but I liked everything!

Q14. What design caused you the most angst? "It would probably be a job where I wasn't able to convince the client that the design they wanted was not the most suitable. It's like if they come in with a design someone in their family made. You have to tactfully steer them towards something more appropriate.

Q15. Your designs go around the world. Have you ever traveled out of the country to see your art set up in its new locale? "No, but I've traveled all around the world. The next time I visit Washington, DC I'm going to visit the lamb and piggy we have at The Founding Farms restaurant there.

Q16. Which contract was a defining moment for you as an artist? "We worked for a retailing designer in Toronto and they sent us the Ben Moss Jewellers logo. They asked us to come up with a unique design. That was a contract that lasted 11 years and went to all the Ben Moss stores across Canada.

Q17. Who were you named after? "No one. I think Noella was chosen because I was born Dec. 21.

Q18. What's your weakness? "Books. Books! Love buying books! Especially picture books or movie design books.

Q19. What artist, living or dead, would you most love to meet? "Well, I'd like to meet Vincent van Gogh. I stood in front of one of his paintings at the Guggenheim in NewYork City. It brought tears to my eyes.

Q20. Do you have a special gadget you can't do without? "Ihave to have my Mirado Classic HB pencils No. 2 with the eraser. I have to have at least six all sharpened and ready to go. And my black coffee.