SIDE STREETS: Modest sign painter quite an artist and darned good historian, too

February 15, 2013
photo - Ray Heins paints a Nativity scene to replace one stolen from Immanuel Lutheran Church on Pikes Peak Avenue in this December 2000 file photo. Heins had painted the original scene 50 years earlier.  Photo by Carol Lawrence / The Gazette
Ray Heins paints a Nativity scene to replace one stolen from Immanuel Lutheran Church on Pikes Peak Avenue in this December 2000 file photo. Heins had painted the original scene 50 years earlier. Photo by Carol Lawrence / The Gazette 

Ray Heins has always considered himself just a sign painter.

During a half-century of work, he painted billboards, cars, trucks, racetracks — anything that needed a sign.

And he meticulously photographed his work.

Now, the discovery of his photo catalog by his granddaughter, Cindy McCombe Spindler, has folks at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum celebrating Ray’s life and work. It’s a tribute that caught the modest painter by surprise and lifted his spirits as he nears the end of his life in hospice care.

In fact, he was shocked the museum wanted to acquire a collection of his work to be used in research and future display in the museum and online.

Turns out Ray was more than just a great sign painter. He was a pretty darn good historian, too.

“It’s really unexpected and fantastic,” said Leah Davis Witherow, curator of history at the Pioneers Museum. “It’s finding history in an unusual and unexpected way.”

The photos date to the 1940s and are valuable for several reasons, she said.

“His photographs document the lost art of sign painting,” Davis Witherow said. “This collection documents every change in technology, graphic style and sign format from hand-painted signs to neon.”

But they capture much more.

“He seemed to be involved in every business in Colorado Springs,” she said. “We get to see how businesses like The Broadmoor changed their image and logo and style over time. And we get glimpses of businesses that no longer exist. In some cases, this is our one and only glimpse of these businesses.”

Davis Witherow said there’s value in Ray’s photos besides their immediate subject.

“The view beyond the billboards, behind the signs, is valuable,” she said. “He documents the development of Colorado Springs. It’s just plain fun.”

I learned of Ray’s work through Cindy, who thought folks might enjoy hearing his story. She was right. I loved seeing his photos and learning of his life. But I didn’t get to meet him. Ray, 92, is not up to visitors.

But I met his wife, Ethel, who at 89 is bright and cheerful and happy to talk about her husband of 22 years.

“He always says he painted every sign from Calhan to Cripple Creek,” she said with a smile. “He’s one of a kind.”

They met in 1990 after both lost their first spouses. The bulk of Ray’s career was already behind him. But he didn’t really retire until a hip surgery in 2002 left him with memory loss. He’d had other medical issues, such as knee replacement surgery from too much time climbing ladders.

And computer graphics had pretty much killed his business by then anyway.

(Danged Internet is killing a lot of businesses.)

“But he never stopped painting,” Ethel said. “He painted wolves and wonderful mountain scenes. And he carved canes.”

But signs were his specialty. Heins for Signs was his business name. And his portfolio of clients reads like a regional business directory.

It was a trade he learned after returning from four years in China, serving in the Army during World War II. Ray had come to Camp Carson for basic training.

“When he came into Colorado Springs on the train, he said he looked out the window and said: ‘This is it!’ He fell in love with the place and he still loves it,” Ethel said.

After the war he came back and fell in love again. This time with Alma Buckley, a bookkeeper who was the fiancé of one of Ray’s Army buddies who died during the war. He’d written to console her and looked her up when he returned. They were married 44 years until her death in 1989.

In 1946, Ray took a job in a sign shop in Old Colorado City. Ethel said he liked the work, took a class and soon opened his own shop. While others went into neon signs, Ray stuck with paint and brushes and ladders.

And he took up photography.

While most photos are ones he took of his work, Ray’s catalog has photos of himself climbing the corrugated steel roof of a huge barn. And on a ladder painting a sign for Seven Falls, his old station wagon, emblazoned “Heins for Signs” parked nearby. There’s even the Gazette Telegraph logo he painted on a truck. And many more.

“He painted fire trucks to race cars,” Ethel said.

Cindy said he tells her that he’s most proud of a large Nativity scene he painted for his beloved Immanuel Lutheran Church on Pikes Peak Avenue. It was featured many times over the 50 years or so it has been displayed. The last time was in 2000 when thieves shockingly stole his painting of Jesus, Mary and Joseph from the manger scene.

Ray went to work recreating the 5-feet-by-4 painting.

Davis Witherow said she met Ray in the fall before he entered hospice care.

And she’s thrilled she had the chance to tell him how much his work means to the community and will live on at the museum.

“It was important to me to let him know how valuable his life and work are to the community,” she said. “He had a real passion for his work. He’s an artist. And he is very modest.  He didn’t see how he was contributing to the bigger picture of our history.”

And that’s exactly what he told Cindy, his granddaughter.

“I didn’t expect to be remembered,” Ray told her as part of her oral history project on his life. “I don’t have royal opinions about myself. I had all these blessings in life. I have been around the world. I should have been killed many times. I came back and became a silly sign painter.

“By honoring me and my life, Colorado Springs is giving me a beautiful ending to my life.”

Though he suffered with age and lost his business to computer graphics and large vinyl presses that made hand-painting obsolete, Ray remains a positive, happy person.

“Nobody has enjoyed life any better than Ray,” Ethel said. “He’s a happy guy. I’ll miss him.”

Heck, I never met him and I’m gonna miss him.

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