Some things are so familiar we take them for granted. Chalkboard menus, for one. We see them almost every day, but anyone who’s seen the menus at the Flying Leap Vineyard Tasting Room at St. Philip’s Plaza or at Diablo Burger on Congress knows these black and white gems can be works of art.
These and other menus you’ll see on the walls of bars and restaurants around town are the work of artist Ashley White. Originally from South Carolina, White moved to Tucson in 2009.
“I came for graduate school,” she says, “and stuck around because I love the downtown vibe and Armory Park neighborhood, and I love the new spaces popping up for creators and entrepreneurs like Xerocraft and Connect Coworking.”
Although White has some artistic background—both her maternal grandparents were artists—she has no formal art training herself.
“I suppose I’m a representation of my generation in that way,” she says. “I have a bachelor’s in psychology, a master’s in higher education and am working in a field that’s completely unrelated to my degrees.”
So how do you go from a bachelor’s in psychology to drawing chalkboard menus in a burger joint?
“I’ve done hand lettering and made my own fonts since I was a kid. I used to make really elaborate notebook covers for my classes and write my friends’ names in all these different fonts. So I used to think, Wow if I could do this for a job, that would be perfect, not thinking that was actually possible. I was working at the University as an adviser, and I loved working with the students, but the 9 to 5 office environment just wasn’t a good fit for me. I was really feeling the entrepreneurial spirit. One day I saw an ad on Craigslist from a restaurant looking for a chalk artist and thought, Hey, I could do that! I bought my first chalk markers at Posner’s on University and that started the whole thing.”
The bigger chalkboards that you see at places like Flying Leap can take two to three days of actual work and another day of designing beforehand. White does most of her work on location, spending all day on ladders or scaffolding. “It’s definitely tough on the knees,” she admits. She uses regular chalks, or chalk mixed with water, but says she’s learned a few tricks of the trade along the way (tricks she’s keeping to herself).
White does a wide variety of other work, including painting a mural on the bottom of someone’s swimming pool (“Unfortunately that job was in the middle of July!”), making jewelry from guitar strings, creating a 3D floating restroom sign for Poppy Kitchen at La Paloma, and designing and building custom tap handles for bars, restaurants, and breweries.
Mike Gerrard is an award-winning travel writer who divides his time between the United Kingdom and southern Arizona. He has written for National Geographic and American Express.