Through chalk art, restaurants find a way to create a permanent identity. Meet a few inspired minds behind the temporary signage.

Through chalk art, restaurants find a way to create a permanent identity. Meet a few inspired minds behind the temporary signage

Daily offerings and beer, wine and cocktail lists temporarily etched in chalk on restaurant walls isn't a fleeting trend, insists Katalina's owner Kathleen Day. It's an identity.

"That handwritten chalkboard, daily-special thing just makes it feel authentic," says Day, whose Victorian Village cafe is covered in chalkboard-painted walls. "Not pretentious, not pre-planned."

Day channels an uber-fresh vibe in the "little cafe with lots of local goodness" that's in line with the Katalina's brand. She says her in-house chalk artist, Rorie Dean, just gets it.

"Once you get that person who understands your brand, you want to hold on to them," Day says. "It's so hard to get that person who understands your vision."

Armed with boxes of chalk, handfuls of paint pens and rolls of painter's tape, chalkboard artists go to work in restaurants and shops all over Columbus crafting hand-drawn menus, murals and sandwich boards.

Three of the city's best chalkboard artists share how they got started and learned how to do their thing.

The Penmanship Perfectionist

After attending business school and working his way up the corporate ladder in a manager training position, Jeremy Wells realized the business world just wasn't for him. "I kind of hated my life," Wells says. Enter Trader Joe's. Wells had heard good things about the national grocery chain and applied for a full-time management position. But it was his handwriting that would land him an unexpected job.

"They said it looked like [my application] had gone through a printer," Wells says. "They wanted my penmanship on their signs. I was kind of baffled."

Using specialty chalks and pens, Wells creates signs and displays in-store at the Easton location as a member of the art team.

"When they need a sign, they need it right away," Wells says. "It lights a fire under me to be creative on the spot."

A self-proclaimed chalk art traditionalist, Wells relies only on hand-drawn sketches and careful measurements. No computers here. And he's been perfecting his penmanship since his grade-school days.

"I had notebooks that I would do my ABCs in," Wells says. "I try very hard to make my text look printed."

The 29-year-old Clintonville resident has taken his mobile art studio around the city to chalk up the Hills Market Downtown, El Arepazo and his latest endeavor, Worthington's new Sassafras Bakery, where he designed and created all of the signage.

Wells crafted handmade wooden sandwich boards for the bakeshop and hopes they'll catch on and eventually replace grungy plastic boards along High Street in the Short North.

"For a part of town that really prides itself on creativity, everybody has that same crappy board," Wells says. "I can build something from scratch and it looks a lot better."

The Scooper Turned Sketcher

Lisa Steward "failed miserably" as a Japanese major at Ohio State before focusing her studies on art. "I realized that [art] is what made me happy," Steward says.

A few years later, in 2011, Steward picked up a part-time job scooping at Jeni's, where she tried her hand at chalk art, periodically revamping signs and menu boards. As an assistant manager at the Grandview shop her art background kicked in, and Steward began to create her own designs for sandwich boards stationed outside the shop.

After taking on small projects combining her own designs with Jeni's aesthetic, Steward was promoted to brand ambassador coordinator and marketing liaison. Now based in the Jeni's office, Steward works closely with the design and marketing teams to create menu and sandwich board designs for 13 scoop shops around Ohio and Tennessee to ensure they all have a cohesive, distinctly Jeni's look. Steward will also have a hand in the designs of upcoming shops in Chicago and Atlanta.

Though Steward is a doodler, a habit she says lends itself well to design, she uses software to ensure consistency when she creates new designs, pulling inspiration from vintage magazine ads. When Jeni's releases a new flavor or sundae, Steward creates two to three digital designs that are sent out to each shop, where scoopers can choose and chalk their favorite.

"That way not every store looks exactly the same," Steward says.

Steward's latest project included a complete overhaul of the main Jeni's menus to make room for the new build-your-own-sundae Gravel campaign. The menu was created to mimic Jeni's first-ever paper menu, Steward says, with a clean, simple look.

Steward misses creating chalk work by hand in the shops but says seeing her designs created by other people is just as rewarding.

"There is a sort of joy when you see something that you've designed then recreated by somebody else," she says. "It's almost like seeing your kid grow up."

The Graffiti Girl

At Katalina's, 23-year-old Rorie Dean channels an "old-fashioned and unexpected" vibe when creating chalk art and signs for the tiny Victorian Village cafe. Part rustic kitchen, part cool cafe, the feel of the place is cozy and energetic. Diners can devour breakfast and lunch inside next to the self-serve Stauf's coffee bar or outside on the wraparound patio. With Latin Pancake Balls and Green Eggs and Ham on the menu, Dean says, "It's all about the quirkiness and the weirdness."

The former gas station is crawling with chalkboards: on the walls, hanging menus, framed boards highlighting local baked goods and even in the bathroom, where customers can leave their own mark.

The Ithaca, New York, native works mostly with chunky sidewalk chalk and chalk pens when updating menus or creating murals on the chalkboard wall. Though she admits handwriting isn't her strong suit, she's always adding whimsical embellishments to menus. For example, the restaurant's current specials board will "bloom" with more and more chalk flowers as the summer progresses.

Her inspiration comes from 1950s tattoo art and her graffiti days, when she used to experiment with street art as a Denison theater student. She got hooked on the extreme art form while studying abroad in London where she'd roam urban streets. When she got home, an old grain factory outside of Bexley became her personal studio.

"I love working with chalk because it's just like spray paint," Dean says. "You're not making a masterpiece that's going to last forever. It's art that exists to be destroyed."