There are signs everywhere you look. No, not omens, portents or mystical visions, but real signs that tell you exactly where you are, or where you need to go. If you’re looking at a sign hanging at a business in Telluride, there’s an excellent chance it was made by Dan Chancellor, an exceptionally skilled sign maker who, earlier this year, retired from his business of 35 years.
Soft-spoken and humble, Chancellor has brought with him to a interview with the Daily Planet a scrapbook displaying images of his work. He explains it’s just a fraction of his work. For page after page, admiring the signs he’s crafted for innumerable businesses is like reviewing Telluride’s history. So many have closed long ago — China Cellar, Bear Creek Bed and Breakfast, Magic Market. It’s a book of memories. Many signs still hang — the hand pointing to the Telluride Historical Museum on the side of the drugstore building, Two Skirts, Between the Covers, Telluride Liquors, Telluride Truffle and a slew of real estate office signs.
For 35 years, Chancellor produced signs in a manner and method that is rare today. Upon graduating with a degree in fine art, he didn’t go right into sign making. After knocking on the doors of every graphic designer in Denver, and coming up empty, he was hired at Artistic Signs, a billboard company that found interest in not just his art background, but also his experience as a stage carpenter.
“I dug more postholes for billboards than I painted signs,” he remembered of that early job.
Before long, he was part of a class taught by Jerry Albright, who is, in the sign-making world, a legendary figure. Chancellor learned from Albright for 4.5 years.
“I never paid him a nickel,” Chancellor said. “He wouldn’t let me.”
Albright imparted in Chancellor skills that would become his only source of income for his working life. It wasn’t easy at first, or immediately successful. While his wife of 40 years, Paula Ciberay, worked at Baked In Telluride — “Didn’t everybody?” Chancellor laughed — he went from business to business with small, sample signs he’d crafted, trying to drum up work.
“Food depended on it,” he said.
He once showed the town’s numerous Realtors samples of his work, including a “Vacancy” sign that he didn’t realize — nor did his prospective clients — was misspelled until a hitchhiker he’d given a ride to pointed out the error.
But still, living hand to mouth in the mountains was better than the life he and Paula were living in Denver.
“I’d rather live in a tent in Telluride, than a mansion in Denver,” he said. “ … Not that I had a mansion.”
Chancellor’s roots in Telluride go back to 1958, when he and his father visited to fish and explore. Telluride was “a pretty rough mining town at that time,” but property was cheap. His father purchased a plot of land Down Valley for $100 a month for an 11-year loan agreement, Chancellor said.
“That blue house (the Good Times Society building next to the current Telluride Marshal’s Deparment) on South Spruce Street was just $500,” he said. “You could get a three-story Victorian for $1,500.”
He drew up blueprints for a house to be built on the Down Valley parcel in 1977, and then returned to Denver so Paula could finish school. When they returned in 1983, he set up shop, built his house and started a family. It didn’t take long before Porcupine Signs was thriving. Chancellor said that at one point, every business on the 200 block of West Colorado Avenue had a Porcupine Signs sign swaying over each shop or office entrance.
Not only were Chancellor’s distinctive and unique signs crafted from wood and hand-carved, hand-lettered and painted — with computers, that has been rendered a bygone craft, Chancellor said — he also created signs by sandblasting glass, using gold leaf and painting directly on brick walls, a technique called wall-dogging.
The work he said “is a source of pride for me. It defines who I am.”
“It’s odd,” he added. “As a person, I’m sloppy and haphazard. As a sign maker, I’m meticulous. That’s not who I am, but who I want to be.”
Why Porcupine? “At the time I started my business, I considered three possible names, Alpine Signs, Timberline Signs and Porcupine Signs,” he said. “Considering the widespread use of the first two names, I’m glad that I went with Porcupine. The motto on my business card reads ‘Have you hugged your porcupine today.’”
Another side of Chancellor that many may know from seeing him at various political marches, protests and register-to-vote drives is that he is a dedicated and passionate activist with the arrests to show for it (he was never charged with anything and has a clean record).
“Activism is another place I take a lot of pride in,” the once longhaired Chancellor said. “I believe that silence is the voice of complicity. I feel guilty if I stand by and let bad things happen.”
He’s been pepper-gassed and roughed up, arrested and has marched countless miles to help shine light on issues like the Vietnam War and the health hazards at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility 16 miles upwind of Denver.
“Plutonium is arguably the most lethal substance on Earth,” he said. “Besides the production of unconscionable weapons, Rocky Flats was a clear and present danger to the health and safety of over 1 million people.”
Today he serves as 1st Vice Chair of the San Miguel Democratic Party, and is a familiar figure in attendance when political candidates and office holders visit town.
For 20 years, he was a member of the Placerville Volunteer Fire Department, a commitment he calls “the most rewarding thing I ever did. It’s rewarding to help people.”
Now that he’s retired, there’s still plenty to keep him occupied. The decades-old house he built with his father and still lives in near Fall Creek is in need of an update and he’s been working on redoing the floors and the walls. That project got sidelined temporarily when the fire danger this summer reached dangerous levels and he realized creating defensible space around his house took priority. He set to work disposing of “35 years worth of trash and a couple of sheds,” as well as clearing trees on his property. “I don’t like to be idle,” he admitted.
His and Paula’s sons, Nick and Graham, both graduated from Telluride High School and are leading lives that Chancellor is proud of, not only for their accomplishments, but more for their characters.
“They’re kind and helpful and respectful people,” he said. “I’m not sure what Paula and I have to do with that, but you can’t ask for anything better.”