Sometimes, all signs point to yes. Like now, for Mary Anne Erickson: past, present and future have coalesced into a vibrant, vintage-inspired work of art that hangs in the sky representing…the whole enchilada. And, roasted chicken, fresh broiled salmon, pans of curried vegetables, juicy briskets, pastries and desserts, and other home-cooked foods.
“It’s unbelievable! Wherever I go, people I barely know are hugging me. They’re so lit up by the new sign,” says Mary Anne Erickson, who designed the LED sign for Bistro-to-Go on Route 28 in the Town of Kingston. Erickson, a painter and reverent fan of vintage signs, co-owns Bistro-to-Go with her husband, chef Richard Erickson. She says the sign, which was executed by sign maker, Kurt Boyer, “brings me joy and makes me smile. People tell me, ‘when I see it, I know I’m x-amount of time away from home.’ It’s an instant landmark.”
Well, not exactly instant. About three years in the making, this latest iteration of the Bistro’s signage is based on an original logo Erickson designed for her husband’s first foray into professional cooking. Back then, the couple lived in New York City in a 2000 square foot light-filled loft on 29th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues and a friend was doing fashion shoots for Victoria’s Secret. “He told us we should rent out our loft and cater lunches, so we did,” she says of the birth of “Richard’s Kitchen.”
Several catering jobs later, Richard became a chef for a NYC restaurant. And then, in 1993, they moved upstate to establish Blue Mountain Bistro at the Woodstock golf course. Erickson added a blue mountain in the background to suit that Catskills location, and two subsequent restaurants, on Route 212. In 2007, they settled Bistro-to-Go into what was formerly a three-business building on Route 28. Today, due to their primary focus on gourmet take-out and catering, Erickson laughs and says she altered the logo again — and then put it up in lights. “I freed the chef out of the mountain. He can go anywhere he wants now. He’s on the move, and his little tail is flying!”
The award-winning café, catering service, gourmet store and provider of healthy take-out meals is situated roughly midway between the State Thruway traffic circle in Kingston and the turn-off to Route 212 leading into Woodstock. It’s located within a tiny corridor of the Town of Kingston, and “the building inspector, Bob Cologero, was such a pleasure to work with, very supportive and easy to communicate with,” says Erickson. “We were careful to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s.” Cologero stipulated that the sign couldn’t be flashing and that it had to be supported on existing signposts that had advertised the three previous businesses.
Erickson’s original thought — to create a neon sign in the style of those she loved from the 40s, 50s and 60s — ultimately proved to be too pricey. Erickson researched extensively before finalizing the design, pouring over thousands of photographs of vintage signs and color combos that included common elements like arrows and space age oriented themes, as well as classic color combos: pale yellow and celadon green were a very common duo, as were basic neon tubes of red, yellow, green and white. When they made the cost- and energy-saving decision to use LED rather than neon, bendability became a factor too. “Our LED tubes are actually all white — you can see that in the daytime — and they don’t bend as easily as neon.”
Erickson has long been a fan of vintage neon signs, and has produced a body of work that’s based on her own travels and photographs. She has been painting old trucks, neon signs and mid-century modern buildings for many years now, inspired by a deepening love for the designs and classic color combinations of earlier eras.
“An interesting thing started happening around the 60s,” she says. “People considered neon tacky, and all over America, on all the main streets, people were forced to take the neon signs down and put up more generic signs. You’ll still see a lot of cool signs on Route 66 and in other places that are old time resort areas, like Lake George and the Adirondacks, and in warm weather destinations like in Florida, Mesa, Arizona, and in California.” Led by her passion for vintage signs and their preservation, Erickson got very involved with the Mesa Preservation Fund, a group that worked hard to restore a motel’s iconic sign featuring diving girls. Erickson contributed a portion of the sales from Giclée prints of her painting, “Diving Girls,” to the fund.
“Then, a couple of years ago, I went to a convention in Florida for the Society of Commercial Archeology,” she says, “and met some of the coolest people in the world. I spoke and showed my work, and I felt like I had finally met my tribe. There were scholarly people there who wrote treatises about these signs and published them in journals, and many artists and photographers too. People are finally awakening to the value of preserving these signs. Awareness is growing.”
Erickson recently found an old cache of photographs that she had taken in the 70s and has been creating new paintings from them. “As a young artist, I was trained as a landscape artist and after I graduated from art school, it took me a while to find my passion. I was attracted to taking photos of signs and old buildings and over time, my fascination grew. I noticed the way the signs were disappearing as our ‘mall culture’ came in, and communities were tearing down stretches of buildings to put up boxy stores that all look the same.”
“Kurt is such an incredible sign maker, and I’ve worked with him for many years. So many people used to come up to the Catskills when they were kids, and driving up Route 28 brings back childhood memories for them. My thing has been ‘roadside America’ for a long time,” she says. “Now, I’ve created my own Roadside Attraction!”