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Ventura County Focus | West County / OJAI

Signs of Artist's Handiwork Are Everywhere

July 14, 1998|BRENDA LOREE

This quaint town is known for several things--its covered downtown arcade, its "pink moment," its strict California Mission-style architecture code, its oak trees in the middle of the street and its eccentric artists, for starters.

But not least of Ojai's signatures is its carved wooden commercial signs. Hundreds of them dot Ojai Avenue and its environs. Some are 50 years old; on some, the paint is barely dry. No glitzy billboards for Ojai, thank you.

And it's a good bet that the carved wooden sign that sits beside the dentist's office, hangs above the boutique, advertises a restaurant or displays a house's street number was carved or created by 86-year-old Roy Patton, who lives in Upper Ojai and has been handcrafting his artistic signs for Ojai Valley businesses since the mid-1940s.

Some of Patton's signs have owls, oak trees, butterflies or leaves incorporated into their design. Others are spare, with only his favorite University Roman typeface letters chiseled into a fine slab of redwood.

"Fifty years ago, Connie Wash, the garden club president, called me up and said Ojai needed an alternative to commercial signs," Patton said recently as he stood outside his hillside aerie cottage, where he lives with his peacocks and black cat. "Connie knew that I carved marionettes."

Crafting the wooden marionettes was Patton's first love--it still is--but it was not a lucrative pursuit, so he began to put his artistry into carving signs.

They've been selling for 50 years.

Doug Stone, who owns an Ojai nursery and displays samples of Patton's work, said, "What Roy does is art with a purpose. It's functional art."

Not all of Patton's work is commercial. His American bald eagle sculpture is on display in City Hall's art gallery beside a piece of pottery by his old friend and folk-dancing partner--Ojai's most famous artist, the late Beatrice Wood.

"I like being next to Beatrice in the gallery," Patton said. "And it's a particularly beautiful piece of hers, too."

Patton carves exclusively in redwood.

"The wood I use is very carefully selected," he said. "It has to have a vertical grain. Down at Ojai Lumber, they'll go through 2,000 pieces of wood to find the right wood for me."

Patton charges $125 and up for his signs, which can take hours or days to make. In his early years, his artistry was labor-intensive in the extreme.

"At first, I carved signs with mallets and chisels. It was several years before I could afford a router," he said.

Although not retired, Patton has slowed down a bit.

These days, Patton lets a sign company in Oxnard give him a high-tech hand.

"First I design a sign, then the sign company feeds it to a computer--it spits a picture out in color, exactly to scale. Then I take over again."

Stone considers Patton "one of Ojai's treasures."

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