The Written Word
In years past, Nan Parati’s Mid City neighbors knew Jazz Fest was coming when they saw her out on her porch, making signs. Hurricane Katrina changed Parati’s address from South Solomon Street to Western Massachusetts, but her yearly sign making has remained a constant. For roughly a month leading up to the festival, three nights of the week and four hours each weekend day, Parati moves her thick, refillable pilot markers over coated cardboard in a font she privately calls Nanosteel. Parati won’t divulge how long it takes her to scribe each artist sign – the small white billboard which sits on the corner of each Jazz Fest stage, announcing the name of the artist to perform there. “I don’t want them to know,” Parati quips, “or else they’ll say: Why are we paying you so much?” But she does concede to being very quick. Quicker than a computer.
For the past twenty-two years, Parati’s hand has been the force behind the written look we come to associate with the festival – a look she strives to make both professional as well as hand crafted. It’s hard for Parati to know exactly how many signs she’s produced over the years. She does all the artist stage signs, all the food booth price signs, all the craftspeople signs, and when a sign needs to go up on the spot at the festival, Parati does those too. Parati has fallen asleep while making signs and woken up while still writing. One year she counted two thousand signs done in her signature style – a font she came up with back in 1985 for her first Jazz Fest. She wanted a quick, fun, and funky look, and though she admits a lot of folks might be able to imitate her design, she’d prefer that they didn’t. “I’m really, really particular about my handwriting,” says Parati. “I don’t want it to be digitized. I don’t want it to be in the computer. I’ve done this festival for 20 odd years and it’s truly my life’s work.”
Parati’s father was a commercial artist, and she grew up making drawings of all sorts, but her artistic talents lay dormant for years. After moving to New Orleans from Charlotte, North Carolina, Parati found a job at the Whole Foods Company on Esplanade. She first worked in the produce department – a position Parati admits to being terrible at, and from which she was eventually fired. Next came the cheese department. They fired her too. But as providence would have it, on the day she was fired for the second time, Whole Foods’ sign maker announced he was leaving his job. Parati assured her bosses this was something she could do. Parati quickly developed a following for her witty meat counter signs, complete with comic parodies of items such as chicken breasts. When Jazz Fest needed a sign maker, she was the natural choice. Eventually, says Parati, “It grew into a real job.”
Then as now, the festival’s art department strives to create a professional yet handmade appearance. “We want it to look festive and bright but certainly not junky,” says Parati. As both Jazz Fest and the world around it have changed over the years, Parati and her colleagues have worked hard to make sure the festival doesn’t come across as one big advertisement.
Equally important, in the year directly following Katrina, when the question of having the festival was very much a question, the festival organizers wanted to keep as much continuity with pre-Hurricane Jazz Fest as possible. So even though Parati was no longer living in New Orleans, there was no question that she would return and do the signs. These years, Parati returns to New Orleans sometime in March and works all the way through the festival.
Parati likes to say she is the most collected artist who nobody knows. She has come across her signs in strangers’ apartments and on E-Bay, and even on the back cover of a CD. “My little carving out place in the world is my signs,” she says. “Some people come back to the sign booth during Jazz Fest and are like, we’ve been coming to Jazz Fest for 30 years. Would you write our name on a sign? So I do.” Parati has written signs destined as birthday presents, and when festival goers come to her with artist signs plucked straight from the stage, she autographs them.
Nan has arthritis now, and just about the only writing tool which still feels comfortable in her hands are the same refillable markers she uses year after year to make the festival signs. “I used to do all kinds of calligraphy, but now I have to change the way I actually hold a pen because my hands hurt a lot.” But the markers Nan Parati uses for Jazz Fest are really huge and really comfortable. “So soon,” she says, “I’ll only be able to make signs.”