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Side by side for signs, good times

Inseparable spouses John and Paulette Ricci run a commercial sign business known for a graceful style.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published February 13, 2004

CHANNELSIDE - They've worked together side by side almost as long as they've been married.

But for John and Paulette Ricci, the togetherness never gets old. They will spend Valentine's Day like most every other day, working in their 4,800-square-foot brick warehouse not far from the Florida Aquarium.

Both 41, the Riccis run their own commercial sign painting business, Artcraft Signs. They are best known for their elegant, gold-leafed signs that grace the entrances and streets of developments around the Tampa Bay area, including MiraBay, FishHawk Ranch, Westchase, Grande Isle, Sunset Isle, Sea Crest and Bay Estates.

Even the UPS man recognizes their style.

You may also have glimpsed one of the Riccis' biggest masterpieces without even knowing it: The camper-sized green-and-yellow Bulls logo on the floor of the University of South Florida Sun Dome.

"We were down on our hands and knees for days doing that one," Paulette says.

Their logos also decorate many other gym floors, including Berkley Prep, Sickles and Chamberlain high schools.

Married 16 years, they've worked side by side almost as long.

"We both have the same sense of humor, and we love to laugh," Paulette explains. "Don't get me wrong; there are days when you're not getting along and you still have to go to work, and that's hard. But because you have to talk to do your work, the talking eases you through it."

Paulette recently launched a custom wall decor business, The Marie Ricci Collection, which consists of castings from her hand-carved original artwork. Her pastel monogram plaques for baby rooms resemble antique wooden blocks and recently attracted the attention of a designer decorating a nursery for the Oprah Winfrey Show.

"I didn't even know it was on," Paulette says of the segment that aired on October. "My friend had to call me and tell me."

Paulette developed the idea about two years ago when a friend said she was a having trouble finding good-looking accent pieces for her child's nursery. She has since expanded the line to include mirrors, clocks and backpack pegs. Her pink and olive green label can be found in stores from Asheville, N.C., to Chicago to Duluth, Minn. "I have to tell you," John says, "that when she first started doing this I thought she was completely nuts. She would work all day and then spend hours and hours carving these things. Now I can say she is definitely not crazy."

The Riccis' work makes for a fluid and fulfilling life with few hobbies. John loves to play golf. They care for a cadre of adopted stray pets in their 1,200-square-foot Hyde Park bungalow not far from Bayshore Boulevard. And they make time for a lot of friends.

But for Paulette, her love of the craft keeps her busy. Growing up in Attlebro, Mass., she started sign painting as a child when she lettered her ladder-back school chair with a blush-pink heart and the warning: "Paulette's Room."

In high school she landed a regular gig painting lettering on trucks for a local construction company.

"My Dad would stand in the driveway drinking a beer wondering what I was doing, and then the guy would hand me 250 bucks and pull off," she says.

Paulette majored in sign painting at a small college in Boston. John studied business and was working as a financial analyst for GTE.

They met on a blind date arranged by Paulette's aunt, an aide to U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and "a regular little Cupid who is always fixing people up," she says.

On their first date they went to a campaign rally.

Paulette brought a girlfriend.

"Once I realized he had a great sense of humor, I sent her home," she recalls.

End of story.

They moved to Tampa in the mid-1980s for John's job with GTE. Paulette went to work for a local printer and ran her own side business at night from a warehouse in Carrollwood because she saw a niche in the local market for good sign painters.

Soon John chucked corporate life and jumped into the business with her.

"I had a mentor in college," he remembers, "who once said to me, "What are you doing? You're not a bean counter. You should be out there working with people.' "

Now the couple wears shorts to work and bring along their dog, Abby.

Most days their work consists of creating large signs for area builders. The signs are made of wood or high-density Urethane foam core. Though they are assisted by a computerized cutting machine the size of a small swimming pool "and about as expensive as three swimming pools," John jokes, much of the lettering and designs that embellish their signs are hand carved by Paulette.

They use a lot of unusual materials such as crushed blue glass, a technique used over a hundred years ago in the coastal communities along the Eastern seaboard because it retains its color forever. They pride themselves in their gold-leaf work, something they have mastered over the years. They use delicate, paper-thin gold from Italy because it applies neatly with a brush and has no air holes.

They work all the time, sometimes 10 hours a day.

"If we feel like going to a movie at 2 in the afternoon," Paulette says, "we take off and go. Then we'll come back and work into the evening."

So, 16 years after tying the knot in a big '80s-style wedding with 150 guests, Paulette still has nothing but good things to say about her husband. He brings her lunch every day. He's genuinely happy to see her when he's been on the road. He packed a champagne lunch one day and took her to the beach on Honeymoon Island. He threw a surprise party for her 40th birthday at their warehouse, complete with rented tables, white tablecloths and dozens of good friends.

And here's the best part (guys, don't hate him, please):

"He even does laundry during football games," Paulette raves.

"And he folds it, too."

As for Valentine's Day, "we'll probably work, though he likes to give me cards that he pretends all the pets signed," Paulette says.

"The truth is it's good all the time."

- For more information about the Marie Ricci Collection, call 1-888-286-0151 or go to www.mariericci.com

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 12:51:07]

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