The Hungary Artist
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The Hungary Artist

The authorities told young John Duzs he'd be a statistician

By Dave Searls

"The communists gave me an aptitude test and said I do good with numbers," says the now 76-year-old suburban Cleveland, Ohio sign maker. He then turns to Linda Fisher and asks rhetorically, "Do I do good with numbers?"

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  • Fisher snickers knowingly. She and Duzs (pronounced Duz) have worked together in his ranch-style home's cramped studio for the last seven years. As his assistant at Novelty Studios, Inc., Fisher helps the former Hungarian refugee lovingly craft the predominantly outdoor wooden signs that have earned Duzs a reputation with city managers, business owners, developers and others with messages worthy of elegant expression in suburban Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and locations a whole lot more exotic such as Africa, Jamaica and the South Pole.

    Duzs still remembers his first career and "the long, stupid political meetings" where he entertained himself by furtively sketching Party speakers. He'd managed to scrape together the money to take private lessons with a professional artist, but the authorities considered Duzs' first and only calling to be an unworthy pursuit. It was during the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 that he fled his homeland with his girlfriend, Eva—later his wife—ten dollars and a single attaché case. "You can't escape with luggage," he explains.


    How It Started

    He landed a job 13 days after arriving in Cleveland—as a staff artist for the American Society of Metals and Materials. Though he spoke "fifteen words of English," he and a translator found common ground in German. As he remembers it, "They asked me if I was an artist, and I told them I was."

    Simple as that. It also didn't hurt that, by coincidence or cosmic intervention, he and that first prospective American employer found that they shared a birth date. While he left the company after 16 years to go on his own, Duzs and his old boss still take turns calling each other with birthday greetings." "I'm the odd one, so I call on the odd-numbered years," he explains.

    Sign making began, like calligraphy, as a moonlighting gig, another way of feeding four children. But he's called it his career for the last 32 years, and the fairly recent widower isn't slowing down yet.

    "He still digs the post holes, regardless of the weather," says Fisher of her Golden Age boss.

    Most residents of Cleveland's woodsy eastern suburbs are at least unconsciously aware of many of Duzs' 13,000 signs. Beautifully hand-carved and elegantly painted, lettered and finished, the wooden planks graciously welcome visitors to city borders and guide travelers through the streets of private developments. Customers also include finer restaurants and shops (especially those known as shoppes), private schools, pristine parks and upscale retirement communities. His signs even showcase the properties of homeowners who can afford the low four-figure price tag. A leisurely drive through a commercial street with Duzs and Fisher yields calls of "There's one of ours!" every minute or two.

    Duzs often returns to familiar grounds because of retail turnover. One building has held 16 of his signs over the last 32 years thanks to its ever-changing tenant base. Many other customers approach him as referrals or discover the talented Hungarian themselves. For instance, the mayor of the Pittsburgh suburb of Edgeworth commissioned Duzs after stumbling upon his handiwork when visiting the Cleveland area.

    The South Pole order came as the result of a Chagrin Falls, Ohio customer who was a scientist and wanted a mileage marker pointing his way home. As far as Duzs knows, his sign still frigidly stands at the bottom of the world.

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    How It Is Done

    Duzs and Fisher do the entire job themselves except for hiring a blacksmith when metal scrollwork is involved. Duzs carves with a chisel because he likes the result better than when using power tools. Asked how technology impacts his business, he holds up both hands, fingers wagging, and says "I'm digital." Then he admits to using a digital camera to photograph the site and a computer to try out fonts.

    He works almost exclusively with cedar and redwood because they hold up best against weather deterioration. Depending on the sign location and the effect he's after, he'll add a couple coats each of enamel and stain after an initial coating of primer.

    Duzs always meets with his customers beforehand. He listens, shoots photos of the setting, and then sketches his ideas with felt markers. His creative strategy is simple. "They ask me to do it one way, they go away and I do something else entirely different," he says chuckling. "And they love it."

    Duzs was just as charmingly persuasive when it came to getting Fisher, a converted glass sculptor, to join his tiny company on a full-time basis. Everyday she came in to work she'd have one of his marker-rendered original place cards awaiting her, the art always representing the topic of a previous conversation. For instant, when Fisher found and tried nursing back to health an abandoned baby mouse, the critter became the subject of a miniature. Though faithful to no school, Duzs does a remarkably passable imitation of Monet, Van Gogh, and Picasso—whoever happens to stir his emotions at the moment. After years of steady employment at Novelty Studios, Fisher is still occasionally greeted with a Duzs original, but, as she good-naturedly grumps, "not as often as before."

    Smooth Style

    If Duzs is smooth with his sole employee, he's really on top of his game when it comes to customers. With a temperament that's the antithesis of the stereotypically fiery Hungarian "artiste", Duzs nonetheless knows what he wants. For example, while gold lettering is, to him, the ultimate touch of class, it must only be placed against a dark background. He reminisces about driving by a competitor's sign featuring gold print that was lost on a white background. "Oh God, how can they do that," he mutters in horror at the memory.

    Imagery is critical to a Duzs sign. After all, he says, "The design is the art. The rest is just craftsmanship." That's why he'll usually try to dig deeper than his customer's initial concept. "I never draw a tooth for a dentist," he says by way of explanation.

    Duzs often takes his cue from nature. The eastern Cleveland suburbs feature rolling hills, canopies of shade trees and the body of water that gives scenic Chagrin Falls its name. So woods and hills and water are recurring themes in Duzs' art. His playfulness comes out at times such as when he made the spur-of-the-moment decision to add a small and surprisingly detailed rendering of the Mona Lisa in the corner of a sign for a gifts and collectibles shop.

    A common challenge comes from customers who want to put too much in the sign. "You need a center of focus," the sign maker cautions.

    Not to mention a typestyle that can be clearly read from a moving vehicle. His worst offender is one classically intricate font. "I refuse to do Olde English even for a church," Duzs groans. "And they have all eternity to read it."

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