Tom Kohler talks about hand-painted signs and a sense of place at TEDx in Savannah

I’ve already written about urban planner Christian Sottile’s great presentation about cities as living beings at the recent TEDxCreativeCoast here at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center here in Savannah.

Below you’ll find the video of Tom Kohler’s talk and slideshow about community and history, as embodied by the hand-painted signs (and the increasing restrictions on them) in primarily working class, African-American neighborhoods. Tom is best known as the longtime head of Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy, but he and photographer Susan Earl have over the years documented hundreds of Savannah’s vernacular, one-of-a-kind signs.

Some of you might have seen Tom give a similar presentation; I saw it at one of the Savannah Pecha Kucha presentations last year. But it’s great to have Tom’s complex, provocative, rhythmic presentation in the lasting form of video.

As someone who writes regularly about zoning issues, I’m particularly interested in the issues of codes that Tom touches on here — especially the power of the zoning administrator to make esthetic judgments and the removal of sandwich boards.

And I guess Tom knows that I’m interested in such things, since he mentions me by name a little after the 4-minute mark.

Tom asks compelling questions here, while presenting some beautiful and quirky and occasionally deeply symbolic images used to promote neighborhood commerce, to promote a brand.

In a Savannah Morning News guest column after the event, novelist and TEDx presenter Jonathan Raab focused on the overall storytelling theme of the day’s presentations:

At a time when daily advances in software, hardware and Tweetware have a tendency to leave us feeling left behind even before we’ve finished that first cup of coffee in the morning, it was refreshing — and no less essential — to hear about technology and design not as the great sources of imagination but simply as the tools for storytelling.

Yes, storytelling. Imagine that? The day at the Jepson became a celebration of the way we choose to tell our stories. Innovation and imagination, it turns out, still rely on that most basic of human instincts. The way we play with ideas, and the methods we choose to communicate them — sophisticated as they might become — lose both their way and their impact without the foundation of story.

Tom and Susan are not alone in documenting these signs and raising questions about their history. Historian Robert Batchelor, another TEDx presenter, has established the Waddie Welcome Archive at Georgia Southern, and SCAD professor Susan Falls presented a fascinating lecture last year at Arnold Hall about the tradition of hand-painted signs.

Please take 11 minutes and enjoy Tom’s talk: