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Signs of Genius - Artist Creating City of Gold

Albuquerque Journal North - Saturday May 2, 1981

By David Bell, Journal Correspondent

SANTA FE - Dennis Knicely knew his lifework was cut out for him when at age 16, he lettered political campaign signs for several of his father's friends and they all won.

Now at 29, Knicely is one of the few accomplished gold leafers in the country. A soft-spoken man with the mien of a Swiss watchmaker, he is quietly bringing a new look to Santa Fe.

The city provides a ready market for the services of a traditional sign maker, in part because of ordinances that bar commercial signs downtown. In the area of the Plaza alone, Knicely has made some 40 signs of carved, painted and gilded wood or gold and silver leaf applied to windows.

A man of broad interests, which include art, architectural and interior design and percussion instruments. Knicely grew up in Ohio. After studying in high school with a freely inquisitive spirit, he found college "nothing but review" and went to work for a commercial sign company in Columbus.

Later in 1976, he moved to San Francisco. Because of his experience in Columbus and his lifelong interest in lettering, he was asked to do a job in gold leaf for the Chicago Title Insurance Co. on Market Street. Although the company in Columbus had employed a gold leafer, Knicely had never learned the work.

He located one book in print on gold leafing and ordered it from the publisher. The book never arrived, however, and in the meantime Knicely just went ahead and taught himself the extremely exacting technique on the spot.

"I did use imitation gold though" he admits. Now, several hundred jobs later, he employs the real thing with abandon.

"I won't say I'm the best," Knicely say, "but I don't know anyone better."

To master the art of gold leafing requires precision and imagination, and Knicely"s rapid and exact speech and alert eyes make it evident that he has both.

Gold leaf is obtained form several suppliers in the United States and abroad, the principle on in this country being M. Swift and Sons in Hartford, Conn. The best leaf is hand pounded by a process that involves placing a strip of 24 karat bullion between sheets of leather and working it with eight pound hammers until it is 3 1/2 millionths of an inch thick. It is estimated that an ounce of strip gold could be pounded to 3 miles in length.

By successive pounding and cutting, the gold is worked into sheets 3 3/8 inches square, which are then interleaved with tissue and gold in packets.

Although the price of gold has risen sharply since Knicely began leafing, the labor cost is still more significant than that of the material.

"Still, if I had to learn it over again, I probably couldn't afford to practice with the real thing," he says.

Why are real gold and silver still used for signs? According to Knicely, it's because a sign is the first thing that prospective customers see. No other material has the rich luster and durability of precious metals, and you can't afford to cut corners on first impressions.

The process of leafing on glass certainly is not for the fainthearted or the impatient. First, a paper layout is made and applied to the outside of the glass.

Then, a gelatin size is mixed and stuck on the inside. The gossamer gold, so thin that it crumples if you breathe ne it, is next applied in sheet to the size. Knicely lifts them with a brush that he lifts ever so slightly by rubbing over his hair. "It's my excuse for keeping my hair long", he says.

The leaf is burnished with even finer brushes, and the paper layout is used as a guide to razor the letters. Finally special paints and varnishes are applied as protective backing.

The Guarantee on the Plaza was Knicely's first job when he took on Santa Fe in earnest in 1977, first working with Sign Associates and then independently. He has since left his mark across the town, on businesses as diverse as the law firm of Catron, Catron and Sawtell, Fenn Galleries, and Charles-David Interiors.

He also travels to seek work in other cities such as Houston, Beverly Hills, and Chicago. Ultimately, Knicely would like to execute and sell leafing on glass as an art form.

That seems a perfectly reasonable ambition. At the same time, considering the value how attached to the shop and tavern signs made by Colonial New England limners, it seems likely that Knicely's signs will one day be regarded as art objects themselves.

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