"I don't miss it on days like today when it's 20 below outside! When your eyes freeze shut and you're up on a billboard it's no fun," recalls Alan Mortenson reminiscing on his first job in design and sign making years ago. We can all sympathize with a frozen face after this winter's arctic blast. Before the digital age (and ice age) Mortenson was hard at work hand painting billboards around the Twin Cities metropolitan area, even in the frigid winter winds. Today, Mortenson has retired his desire to climb towering billboards in the -20 degree weather and is enjoying his job at the University of Minnesota Sign Shop and his job as a father of his two children.
Outside of his career Mortenson is all about family, you can catch him sporting his homemade maroon and gold bracelet given to him by his kids, Maya (9) and Nathan (7), which he pledged to wear everyday. His wife, Kristen Mortenson, is a lead case manager at Lutheran Social Services spearheading the child development section of the program. The Mortenson family loves to have fun together, every year they take a trip to the Wisconsin Dells to enjoy the massive water parks. Mortenson said, "were waiting for that trip to Disney World!"
Mortenson received his BFA in Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. While attending school he worked at a printmaking studio that would bring in artists from all over the country to design limited edition graphics for the shop. "As soon as I graduated that place went out of business so I ended up sticking my hand in this other company, they were painting signs and billboards at the time. I thought, I can push a brush around and they gave me a chance, it worked out," said Mortenson.
Mortenson ended up working there for the next 17 years, the company was called Visual Impact. "After some things changed to digital everything started to follow that way - we jumped in with both feet, otherwise we'd be out of work. We started getting bigger and bigger machines, which meant we could do a lot of wall murals and billboards, semi trailers, vehicle graphics, that type of thing," he said.
The University of Minnesota Sign Shop was a customer of Visual Impact, Mortenson caught word that some employees were retiring at the Sign Shop and he was interested in taking their place. Mortenson explains, "Its total high pressure when you're a print service provider it's like it's never good enough, never fast enough, it's like a pressure cooker. At the U it seemed like a different environment, a better environment, a little healthier environment. When I first came here everybody was just so nice, and still is!"
Mortenson said working at the U has similarities to owning a sign shop. "I am like a sole proprietor, sometimes we generate our own jobs and sometimes we'll just be the first one in contact, we'll go out there and estimate the job, we will do the art, produce it, then install it and keep track of all the costs- we pretty much do it all. It does lend itself to somebody who needs that variety." The sign shop does a lot more than name tags and room IDs! Bright ideas are brewing for the future of the sign shop and Mortenson has the knowledge to get them up and running, "hopefully in the next few years we should be getting some more technology in the sign shop. I was coming from a world where there was nothing but technology so it was kind of like stepping back into time. I think a lot could benefit from upgrading some equipment."
Mortenson takes pride in working for the University of Minnesota because of the culture that has developed around the University, there is a strong sense of community. "I heard about some research in diabetes, my sister is diabetic it's just amazing how far things have come and they are getting close to finding a cure. I like being a part of that even though it is a small part helping people find their way around mostly," said Mortenson. The sign shop helps us get the word out about important happenings at the University so the community can be involved, plus figure out how exactly to get there!