The Danthonia Christian Community produce handcrafted signs

The Danthonia Christian Community produces world class, handcrafted dimensional signs at its Inverell, NSW sign shop, but the future of this thriving business could be in doubt due to Commonwealth Immigration Department intransigence.


The Danthonia community – named after an oatgrass common to its location in the New England region of New South Wales – is the Australian affiliate of Bruderhof Communities International, which was founded in Germany in 1920, but traces its origins back to the 16th century Reformation in Europe, when thousands of Anabaptists (believers in adult baptism) left the institutional churches to seek a life of simplicity, brotherhood and nonviolence. The Australian community was established in 1999 with the purchase of land at Inverell and the arrival of community members from the US and Britain. Like other Bruderhof communities in other locations, the Danthonia group was welcomed by local government, business owners and residents in the area. Rather than live in isolation, the Bruderhof ’s aim has always been to become part of the local community and contribute to it, says community spokesman, Randy Gauger. This attitude was reflected in the decision to set up a business that produced high-quality, hand crafted dimensional signage for both domestic and international markets.

The business would bring export dollars to the district and, because there was nobody locally offering handcrafted dimensional signage, it would not take away income from local sign shops in the region. Danthonia Designs opened its doors in 2001, following a year of market research, experimentation with various tools and materials, and implementation of computer design hardware and software. ‘As part of the learning curve we had some of our people go to the US to train with Jay Cooke and Paul White, two of the world’s leading exponents of handcrafted dimensional signage,’ said Danthonia Designs creative director, Joe McKernan, who came to the community with experience running a similar business in the US. ‘Due to issues with water damage and weather warpage local woods were not suitable for this type of signage, so we chose high density urethane (HDU) as the signage material. It has the authentic wood look and is resistant to all weather conditions’, explained Mr McKernan.

The fledgeling business targeted retail and professional businesses, wineries, local councils, libraries, galleries, restaurants and pubs and a range of other businesses deemed appropriate for this type of signage. In addition to implementing a business plan, Danthonia Designs also formulated a manufacturing system, whereby each stage of the job would follow a production schedule to ensure that all jobs got out in order and on time. ‘This way we ensure that each job, although handcrafted, gets out inside five weeks instead of five months, as is often the case with this type of work,’ said Joe McKernan. Danthonia’s style of handcrafted dimensional signage caught the attention of businesses, not only in Australia but also the US and the UK. The business grew quickly, expanding its signage options to include sandblasted, sculptured, gilded, carved and artwork hand-painted directly onto the sign. The first thing that strikes you when looking at the quality and finish of the work is that they must be using some good quality CNC routing equipment and a flatbed digital printer. Not so. A basic woodworking shop is used for the fabrication of the signage and the artwork is designed using FlexiSign Pro on a modern PC, but the signs are totally crafted by hand.

The sign shop is staffed variously by Danthonia – he craft of the artisan lives on… …for the moment between 20 and 25 artisans who are trained in one or more aspects of the work, whether it be metalwork, carving or gilding. Because they
live in community, a reduction in sign orders means staff can alternate from sign making to agriculture by working in the vegetable gardens for a while or doing maintenance or other tasks around the place until the sign
work picks up again.

How it works for customers
Customers who are considering this type of signage for their business are supplied a promotional brochure which includes a questionnaire to help “draw a bulls-eye” around the specific need the buyer wishes the signage to address: sign location; how far from the road; the speed of passing road traffic; and other relevant data that give Danthonia’s design team the information to prepare an agreed-upon goal that the signage is to achieve. If the customer wishes to proceed, a small deposit is requested and design is submitted. Once the design is approved a deposit of 50% is collected. When the job is completed a photograph of the finished sign is sent to the client and, once approved, the balance is paid and the sign is shipped. Currently, more than 50% of signage produced at Danthonia Designs is exported overseas to countries such as the US and Britain.

Awards for craftsmanship and business
The establishment of the Bruderh of Community at Inverell and subsequent setting up of Danthonia Designs has lifted the bar on signage excellence in this country. It has also provided training for its personnel and a thriving local industry. Danthonia has won a raft of sign industry awards including the Judges Award (for highest overall score) at the 2003 Sign Association of Australia Awards and was a winner at the Signs of the Times Awards in 2004. The Glen Innes and Crofters Cottage signs are both ranked in Sign Business magazine’s “Top 20 Signs of 2002”. Business awards include the Northern Inland Excellence in Business Award in 2002 in the “New Business” category and “Best New Business Award” in 2003. Interestingly, Danthonia Designs is happy to share the skills of its craft with “outsiders”. People interested in the techniques and methodology involved in creating this world-class signage can arrange to visit the community’s sign shop and learn from the experienced artisans.

Immigration’s threat to stability
The Bruderhof’s setting up of Danthonia Designs within its community and the willingness of its people to share these unique skills with other industry members has brought a level of innovation, craftsmanship and creativity not before seen in the sign industry in this part of the world. The uniqueness of the art is something that should be retained at all costs. But Danthonia Designs’ excellent work is being disrupted by the loss of many of its fine artisans due to immigration red tape. Some members of the community have been given visas while others haven’t. The problem being that since the community was first established in 1999, the goal posts have been moved by the Department of Immigration. Randy Gauger said that those whose visas run out have no option but to return to their country of origin. ‘There are approximately 30 people, including children, who have had to return to their home countries already,’ explained Mr Gauger. ‘These people had temporary visas – either long-stay business or religious worker visas – however, due to changes in the regulations there were either no options for renewals or we were advised that further applications would be denied.’ Prior to purchasing the Danthonia property in 1999, the Bruderhof people were given a clear indication that while Australia has a strict immigration code, there would be options for temporary entry and later permanent entry for those that qualified. ‘We were consistently directed to the business class visas which were long term and renewable,’ said Mr Gauger.

A wedding meeting in the big woolshed at Newstead. Work and worship are all part of the community behind Danthonia Designs. Quality materials, quality workmanship and and the artisan’s love of the the craft goes into every sign produced in Danthonia Design’s workshop. ‘We followed the department’s advice until the regulations changed and we could no longer meet the criteria for that class.’ The only option left was the religious class visa, which is very narrow, according to Gauger, and under the current legislation is for all intents and purposes restricted to the corner church that needs a minister. It does not address the needs of a religious order like the Bruderhof. ‘At a meeting I had with a top level person in the Department, he told me: “you (the Bruderhof ) are collateral damage to the changing regulations”. He offered no hope of a solution.’ Danthonia is an integrated community where work, worship, education and the rest of life are one unit; so the loss of people in one area will affect other areas. The changes in immigration laws and consequential return of members to their countries of origin has already effected Danthonia Designs’ ability to work as a cohesive unit. The further erosion of community members due to immigration restrictions will certainly impede the sign business’s ability to grow. The community had even purchased a property at Newstead but that has had to be put on the market. ‘We hoped to build a second community there some day but due to dwindling numbers we’ve had to consolidate our numbers at Danthonia,’ stated Randy Gauger. The Danthonia Community has received strong support from local MP, Richard Torbay and Inverell mayor Barry Johnston. Sign Association of Australia president, Barbara Enright, has also added her name to the list of of supporters, writing to the minister for immigration Amanda Vanstone on behalf of the community. All insist that these resourceful and productive people contribute to the community in numerous ways. They are not asking the Australian government for a hand-out; they’re simply asking for a fair go. While this magazine does not normally support causes, we do encourage those who feel that the level of craftsmanship at Danthonia Designs is something to be preserved to write to the Minister of Immigration stating their objection to the wholesale rejection of permanent residency for the people at the community.

The address is
Right Hon. Amanda Vanstone
Parliament House, Canberra. ACT, 2600

Joe McKernan – a standout talent

Neighbours come to see a new addition to the Danthonia Community
The Danthonia Bruderhof Community’s spectacular signmaking success is in no small way due to the talents of its creative director and lead artist, Joe McKernan (pictured). Joe started out as a kid in the US doing hand drawn T-shirts for his friends. By the time he reached his teens, what had started out as a hobby had turned into a business. At one point he was working as a lifeguard during the day and printing T-shirts at night, and often the income from the shirts exceeded his lifeguard wage. Joe went to art school at Hartford University and in 1974 gained his fine arts degree. For the next 20 years he followed a career path that allowed him to develop his skills in screen printing, product photography, design layout, art direction, and wood working.

These artistic skills became the foundation on which Joe has built his reputation as one of the leading dimensional sign artists of his generation. In 1994 he was asked to join a wood sign making company that was in financial trouble. The owners brought him on board because they believed his expertise could help right the company’s bottom line. Joe proved them right. In the process, he began a love affair with the art of handcrafted signage, which led him to visit some of the best sign shops in the US, attend Letterheads gatherings, and to speak to sign people all over the country, gleaning insights into all angles of the sign maker’s art and passing on his own growing expertise. He gained recognition as a leading authority on redwood signs and people across the industry sought his advice. In 1999 the Bruderhof Christian Community began an integrated community settlement in Inverell, New South Wales and Joe was one of those tasked with researching business opportunities. Naturally he leaned toward sign making, particularly when he discovered that hand carved dimensional signage was virtually an extinct art in Australia. The community opted for the sign business and the rest is history. Together with his team of designers and artisans, Joe is working to change the face of Australia, one sign at a time. In an age when time-honoured artistic skills are vanishing, Joe is re-energising an important art form, and Australia is the richer for it.

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