Mural and ghost sign artists looking for help during restorations

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, April 5, 2023

SPENCER — A pair of sisters-in-law who have become well known for their mural work in various areas of the state, including Salisbury, are now tackling restoring a number of historic ghost murals in Spencer, but one in particular is giving them a tough time.

On the side of Roger Dogs restaurant, across 5th Street from city hall, there are three signs that Earle Kluttz Thompson and Raines Thompson Kuppin are working to restore. One is of Wallace Realty and one is a Coca-Cola sign, but at the very top, there is not enough left of the original work to figure out what needs to be restored.

And the women are hoping someone in the community can help, with either a memory or better yet, a picture.

The two became acquainted when Earle began dating Raines’ brother, Bo, while at Chapel Hill. Earle graduated first, with a degree in art, and moved to Raleigh to kick off an art career. When she showed her portfolio to her father-in-law and mentioned an interest in mural work, he suggested she include Raines.

“When she started, she was going to work with me for three, maybe six months,” said Earle. “Here we are 20-something years later.”

The two have already restored several ghost signs in Spencer as well as Salisbury, which is the name for old advertising murals on the sides of buildings that have begun to fade or wear away, but their steady day to day work is in creating indoor murals at the children’s hospital at Chapel Hill.

Earle, who is from Salisbury and whose parents, George and Margaret Kluttz, still live here, had actually taken photos of the ghost signs in Spencer in 2012 and submitted a proposal to the town, but the timing was not quite right.

In 2021, NC Lead Fellow Student Skye Allan brought the idea of restoring the signs to Town Manager Peter Franzese, who gave her the go-ahead to apply for grants and see if she could find funding. She found support from both the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation and the Woodson Foundation, and when the town began looking for artists to do the work, Earle and Raines were at the top of the list.

“Spencer has a lot of development going on right now, and not just residential,” said Allan. “We’re hoping this becomes a social space again, where people come, spend time, shop, visit, eat, chat with neighbors and get to know each other again. And these signs are part of our history. We don’t need to pain or pave over our history, we need to bring it forward with us.”

Earle said she “grew up in a family that’s big on historic preservation, so I feel like this is my part.”

The two have worked together long enough that they don’t always have to talk about what gets put where, or who needs to hold a level, it just happens.

“One of the things I learned early on is that we just need to be honest with each other, and not take it personally when someone suggests changing a color or trying something a little different,” said Earle.

“But it’s good that we have each other, that we have two sets of eyes,” added Raines. When they come up against a design that can be a challenge to decipher, “sometimes one of us can see something the other hasn’t. We compliment each other.”

“She’s an amazing colleague, best friend, and like a sister — she is my sister,” added Earle.

Both agree that working on the ghost signs is a nice change from working inside at the hospital, giving them a chance to get outside, be in the fresh air, and engage with people who are often “really excited about what we’re doing,” said Earle.

If anyone has any input on what the topmost sign might have said, Allan asked that they contact her at Spencer Town Hall at 704-633-2231, ext. 26.

She, Earle and Raines have scoured books, catalogues, and online documents to see if they could find a photo or comment on the sign, to no avail. Earle even contacted the nephew of the former owner of the building but he couldn’t remember what the sign was.

“We aren’t tackling the unknown sign this trip,” they said, but when the time comes, they hope they will have found some bit of information to help direct them.