John Signor's Love for Art and the Railways
By Brandi Barnett
Right on TrackMarch 2007
By Gary VanDeWalker
Photo by Taryn Burkleo
As the Santa Fe SDX train thundered between San Bernardino and San Diego, two young boys skidded their Schwinn Wasps to a stop. The summer sun dropped as budding artist John Signor and his friend Bo were hypnotized by the fading lights of rail cars passing by. The sunset flickered between the eucalyptus trees as boyhood dreams danced in their heads. In 1960, every kid wanted a Lionel train. Signor was no exception. In pursuit of a Boy Scout merit badge, he moved onto model railroading. “Engineer Jack Elwood would let Bo and me ride on the 1515, the same engine on my model railroad,” Signor said. Later he extended his hobby to jumping onto freight trains and touring the Southwest on weekends.
For Signor, trains took a backseat to art. From the moment he could hold a pencil he drew.His mother saved every drawing. “I found myself in kindergarten drawing elaborate stuff.” Later he combined his passion for drawing with his love for trains, becoming one of the premier artists
and authors in the world of railroading.
Destiny drew Signor and his family to Dunsmuir. A graphic designer, trains brought Signor to a second career as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1974, he rode his first cantaloupe train out of Tracy. As his family grew with two children, he wanted to move to a small town.He relocated to Dunsmuir in 1978.He worked trains from Dunsmuir to Ashland. To satisfy his curiosity, Signor used his 35- hour layovers in Ashland to study maps and documents scoured from The Vault, a treasure trove of information in the local office of the Southern Pacific. Taking his research, he created 1920-style maps of the railways and combined pages of notes into the story of the railroad around Mount Shasta. In 1982, he published Rails in the Shadow of Mt. Shasta. The book was an immediate success.However, the publisher only made nine-hundred copies before discontinuing business. The book became a railroader’s collectible.
The lure of art continued to pull on Signor. In 1990, he took a break from Southern Pacific to start his own graphic design business. In 1994, he quit the railroad, never having the time to return to his railway job.He finished his years for retirement serving as a conductor on the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train.He began his 10th railroad book this year.He edits three magazines: The Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific Historical Society magazines. Among his numerous works of art are 65 oil paintings with a railroad theme.
Signor’s studio smells of oil paint and paper. Upstairs, a massive layout of the Santa Fe railroad of Southern California shows what happens when a boy’s dreams becomes the hobby of a skilled artist. In the studio, paintings of trains hang on the wall, along with an easel with one of three works in progress.
Signor paints in the Plein Air style, popular from the turn-of-the century until the 1920s. Plein Air painting is a form of landscape painting, semi-impressionistic using vibrant colors in a natural, loose style. “My paintings are about landscapes and then trains,” Signor remarked. “The Plein Air painter never uses black. That can be difficult in painting trains. But I never use black. I mix a dark with about eight different colors. In nature, rarely is anything really black in color.” Plein Air painting is also done outside, with a box of paints and a portable easel. Signor admits, “In this respect, I’m not a Plein Air painter.My work is created in a studio. Though it is done in the Plein Air style.”
Signor used his first Plein Air works for dust jackets of his books, then for his own amusement. “Everything I write and draw is a reflection of me. I do it for me.” Signor’s paintings are a combination of vivid landscapes and detailed trains. “Every number and rivet of the train has to be accurate or rail buffs notice.”
As he once stood in the Southern California sunsets with his friend Bo watching the trains go by, Signor now paints in the evening when he can control the light. “I always wanted to do art. It’s what I did from the very beginning. It’s what God gave me the ability to do.”