Franklin Artist Finds Creative Niche With Chalkboard Menu Art

Mar 13, 2014

In an era of flat screen TV displays and high-resolution digital printing, the simple chalkboard is making a bit of a comeback. Not in classrooms, but in restaurants.

“I wanted something that looks more ‘custom’, if you will.  I love the way those chalkboard painted signs looked and it just fit our atmosphere,” said Keith Coffman, owner of Lost River Pizza Co. in Bowling Green. “We’re really a rustic, kind of laid-back atmosphere here and they tied in real well with it.” 

Lost River Pizza features several pieces of  artwork by Bob Gregory.

“I’ll tell him what we need and he’ll run with it and he’ll usually draw or sketch something and then e-mail it over to me for me to approve, and then he goes to town and does it,” said Coffman.  

You may have seen one of those chalkboard signs with vintage lettering and sometimes colorful drawings and wondered whether someone on the restaurant’s staff was an artist or had really neat handwriting. But in many cases, those signs are professionally done and one of the artists doing them is Bob Gregory, whose business, called ArtFX Design Studios, is headquartered in a studio loft in downtown Franklin.

“I didn’t go to school for this, but I was interested in it – like anybody else.  But I wasn’t trained to do any of it,” said Gregory.  “That particular Christmas [2009] I sort of did it – not necessarily out of necessity -- but to do something that would make a little extra money and I was surprised that I was good at it, I guess, and it just grew from there.”

"There are not too many people in the United States that advertise themselves as someone who makes these kinds of boards."

A look at his clients shows his artwork all over the country – from restaurants in Kentucky to California, New York, Texas and even Anchorage, Alaska – all produced in Franklin.  Gregory says when he first got started, he looked for information on search-engine optimization to increase the number of eyeballs on his artwork.

“Once I started putting the website together it just slowly started growing.  The photos, especially with the chalkboard signs and menu boards, it’s sort of a specialty thing. There are not too many people in the United States that advertise themselves as someone who makes these kinds of boards,” said Gregory.  “So, if anyone was to look up, ‘I want a menu board for my restaurant’, my pictures would pop up."

He says the process starts with an idea from the restaurant or bar owner. Once they settle on a design and a size, he cuts Medium Density Fibreboards – or MDFs and then applies three coats of black chalkboard paint

“Depending on what they want, we either use chalks or we use acrylics,” he said.  “A lot of the restaurant groups, I tell them that we should use acrylics simply because if they want to wipe them down, if they have dirt or kids coming up and scratching on them and that type of thing – it’s just better to have the acrylics – it looks like chalk, but it adheres more like paint and it’s more durable.”

He says some of his clients – especially larger PR firms making a proposal– sometimes request real chalk instead of acrylic paint. Those chalk drawings are sealed with an acrylic coating to prevent smudging.

In addition to the chalk board signs, Gregory also paints murals –  big ones – on the sides of buildings, in the upper reaches of restaurant walls like at Lost River Pizza,  and even unusual places like the roof of a marina at Wolf Creek Lake.

“That was kind of unique because –of course it was very hot, right in the middle of summer and you’re standing on the roof,” said Gregory.  “We had to map out the roof into square feet and be able to replicate the logo one square foot at a time, so to speak, to make sure it was in dimension, because you can’t really back off and look at it.”

Whether it’s chalks or acrylics, a menu board, a mural, or the cubist paintings he does for pleasure, Gregory says his artwork still surprises him sometimes.

“Lots of times, especially several years ago when I first started doing this, honestly, I would look at it like anyone else and go ‘that’s pretty good’. Not trying to pat myself on the back at all, but I would kind of be amazed that it came out as good as it did,” he said.