Donn Trethewey : Pinstriper/Flamepainter

By Bill Anthony::

A few years back, I visited the touristy little town of Pt. Townsend, WA to meet a legend. Thing is, I had no idea what a real legend should look like.

As an editorial photographer, it is not unusual to get a call for an assignment on a subject I know nothing about. Typically, by the time I’m done, in addition to getting the photographs, I usually learn a little something along the way. On this particular assignment, I would learn a lot. And not just about pinstriping.

Donn Trethewey is known among hot rod circles as a guy who can paint some damn fine lines. He’s also quite adept at the traditional hot rod flame job. I got a call from the kustom kulture magazine GARAGE to photograph Donn for an upcoming feature. Having done work for other bike and hot rod builders, I had a picture in my mind of what this guy would look like. They usually come in some flavor of denim, tattoos, and pomade—and a healthy dose of ego barely contained by the overalls. When I showed up in Pt. Townsend, I arrived to a small little wooden house on a bluff surrounded by tall grass and a front door answered by what looked like Jim Henson’s little brother. I asked for Donn. He smiled his toothy grin and said, “That’s me!” I almost laughed. He was an unassuming, quiet man who looked more at home at a coffee shop reading the New York Times than a guy masking off a windshield with the New York Times.

Portrait of Donn Trethewey.
Portrait of Donn Trethewey.

He invited me into his little shack on the hill and offered me coffee. After small talk about mutual acquaintances and the virtues of small town living, we moved to the backyard. By now I am a little nervous as there are no hot rods or flame jobs in sight. No shop. Nothing. I thought to myself, “What the hell am I going to photograph?” At the time, GARAGE magazine had just been purchased by the infamous bike builder Jesse James. There was a look to uphold. Donn was not that look.

In addition to my usual kit, I had brought my large format, 4×5 view camera with me since the subject matter was decidedly old school. I thought I’d bring the camera to match. I stood Donn up against the flaking, aging paint on the side of his garage. I shot several sheets of color and black and white. Every now and then I’d shoot some 35mm if it seemed right.

It started feeling right, but didn’t feel like enough. In a desperate effort to find a deeper story, I asked Donn if he had any photographs of some of his past projects. “Oh yeah. Hang on,” he said looking over his reading glasses as he slowly turned and walked back to the shack. What he came back with was pretty amazing. Glossy 5x7s of recent hot rods. Tattered black and white prints of him as a crossing guard in elementary school. His first car. His first Triumph. His first girlfriend. Little by little, with each print flipped to the back of the stack I’d learn more about what an amazing artist and craftsman Donn was. And is.

One Shot. Handpainter's choice.
One Shot. Handpainter’s choice.

I got the idea to tape the best shots up to the side of the shack, now wallpapered with some hot rod flames he’d penciled for me on a piece of paper. I lugged the 4×5 camera over and we shot some still-life of the prints. He used green car painter’s tape to mosaic the prints up. Brilliant.

After shooting for another 20 minutes or so, I asked if he could pinstripe something for me. A fender? A quarter panel? “Hmmm… don’t have any of that right now. I’m slow at the moment.” I offered my 4×5 camera case, almost as a wishful joke. He obliged.

Donn at work.

We had now moved to the back of the house, in the shade on his back deck. Nearby we could hear traffic whooshing by on an arterial that led to downtown Pt. Townsend. Donn pulled out his leather, old school doctor bag; he is sometimes called “Doc” by peers because of this bag. In it were all his One Shot paint cans and his brushes. This is where the rubber met the road. With the hands of a surgeon (another reason he’s called Doc) he began to paint pinstripes on my fiberglass case while I snapped away. It was like watching a miniature figure skater making graceful circles of paint. He used his pinky to steady his hand, a classic sign-painter trick. He was freestyling. No plan, no stencil, no worries. But the best part was that as he painted, he imparted wisdom. Wisdom ranging from motorcycle maintenance to the Zen of life. Donn has a decidedly patient view about life. Never rush anything. Why? It’s not a race. And if you treat it like a race, you allow the option of losing. Even to this day, when I am confronted with a difficult challenge, I wonder what Donn would do. I like to say, there’s the wrong way and then there’s the Trethewey.

Every so often, we’d hear the “potatopotatopotato” of a Harley go by on the road. Every time one did, Donn would, without ever looking up from the pinstripe, softy call out the name of the person riding the bike. He knew the locals just by the sound of their loud pipes. Finally, towards the end, one went by and Donn said nothing. I asked, “Stumped?” He replied, “Out-of-towner.” Small towns.

What Donn does is now considered a relic of a craft, which I find profoundly sad. Lately, there’s been a resurgence in vintage “maker” culture and I couldn’t be happier. It’s also just in the nick of time. There aren’t many people like Donn left. We now live in a world of a decidedly more electronic sort. We are shackled by the duration of lithium batteries. There was something really nice about watching a man pull little rusty cans of paint out of an old doctor’s house call bag. To see small, custom paint brushes cut by hand into very specific shapes and stored in old vintage cigarette cans filled with oil to keep the hairs from degrading. It was all so—tangible.

In the end, he pinstriped a simple little design on my now very fancy camera case. I still have it. It will in all likelihood outlive me. Not something you can say very often these days. I hope more people get into these sorts of trades. Hand-painted sign-making seems to be making a comeback. Computer-generated signs have no soul and I hate Times New Roman. Vinyl wraps on cars look stupid in comparison to a legit flame or stripe job. Cheap is just that.

I’ll never forget my day with Donn. He’s been a friend ever since. But if I know one thing to be true, in addition to never judging a book by its modest cover, it’s that I can never sneak up on Donn Trethewey. He knows the sound of my truck.

The doctor bag and paint brushes.
The doctor bag and paint brushes.