As recently as a few years ago, Joan Aylward was willing to concede that the dream was dead.
She’d wanted to be an artist. And coming out of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the mid-’80s, she was hopeful. She had an eye for composition, knew her way around a camera, and had a natural ability to sketch. But it didn’t happen. She got a job waiting tables, and then another. She married, had a son. Pretty soon, she’d served up more plates of burgers and steaks than she cared to remember and two decades had slipped by. She had to come to terms.
“I just didn’t see it happening,” Aylward says now. “I wasn’t doing anything to bring that side out of me.”
Today, though, in a twist she never saw coming, the 54-year-old has found herself in the midst of a surprising second act: Aylward has emerged as arguably the city’s most prominent and sought-after chalk artist, drawing up trendy custom menus for bars and restaurants all over town. Chances are, if you’ve stepped through the doors of a Boston establishment in the past two years, you’re familiar with her work.
To date, some 150 restaurants in and around Boston have displayed her lavishly designed menu and cocktail boards — from the casual (Tasty Burger) to the elegant (Capo).
A lot of restaurant owners have grown so fond of her work that they maintain standing appointments to update their menus and signs. Some insist on her because no one else will do.
“If a certain liquor brand wants to bring their own artist in, I don’t let them,” said J Bellao, owner of Audubon in Fenway, which commissions Aylward once every six weeks to create a sign for a new drink special. “If it’s going to be something that’s inside our walls, it’s going to be her.”
The whole thing would have seemed far-fetched five years ago.
Aside from the occasional odd job — she worked briefly for a couple of local photographers, though mostly behind the scenes — her art degree had been put to little use.
As the years passed, her mother occasionally mentioned that she should be using her God-given artistic talent.
But Aylward couldn’t see it.
“Life takes over, and the kid takes over, and you’re busy doing life things,” she said.
Then chalk menu and cocktail boards started coming into vogue. While working as a waitress at a chic after-work spot in the Seaport called Sam’s, Aylward began fooling around with the restaurant’s chalkboard walls. During down time, she’d unfurl carefully crafted liquor logos or private events signs that got the attention of colleagues.
“One of the kids I worked with said, ‘You should be doing this everywhere,’ ” Aylward said.
One Sunday, Will Clark, the general manager at local restaurants Capo and Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant, had brunch at Sam’s and was impressed. He hired Aylward for some small projects at one of his restaurants.
Word of her ability quickly spread, and soon, calls were coming in from restaurants across the city.
Citizen Public House. Harvard Gardens. Lucky’s Lounge.
Before long, Aylward’s client list had expanded into the dozens, and by the time Sam’s closed its doors in 2015, she arrived at a surprising conclusion: She’d generated enough business to do sign art full time — and pay the bills.
“I’m able to make a living,” she said.
Some of her jobs are straightforward — small signs welcoming patrons to private events, menus listing food or drink in flowery, fun fonts — but others are more involved, detailed projects. When Tasty Burger opened a restaurant in Washington, D.C., the company sent her there to create murals on several walls. One of her most memorable jobs is one she did for a fancy neighborhood joint in Framingham called Bourbon’s Kitchen & Cocktails, which commissioned a sizable rendition of a ’50s-era pinup girl sitting atop a barrel of whiskey.
Lately, she has expanded to more corporate work. The Celtics and Red Bull have been clients. Liquor companies have commissioned her. Keurig recently brought her in to fill three large boards at the coffee company’s Burlington facilities.
Her schedule has grown so full in recent months, in fact, that even some of her regular customers joke about the increasing difficulty of getting her on-site.
“She’s a busy woman,” said Clark. “I always take full credit for her success. It’s my way of guilting her into opening some availability for me.”
On a recent weekday morning, Aylward arrived at a nondescript storefront on Broadway Street in South Boston, the future home to a fast-casual salad place called Shredded. Inside, amidst the lingering construction workers, idle power tools, and sawdust-sprinkled floors, she dropped her tool bag and set up in front of a trio of large blank menu boards and went to work.
Standing atop the bar, hands dotted with green, Aylward used a level to keep the work aligned.
Three hours later, the boards had begun to take shape, and as Aylward stopped to evaluate what she’d so far done, she marveled quietly at the novelty of it all.
“Who knew?” she said. “I draw on walls, and people pay me.”