Like a lot of public school teachers, Phillip Sada was feeling burned out after teaching through the pandemic. 

The recent death of his mother also was weighing heavily on the middle school art teacher when he happened upon the 2013 documentary Sign Painters. The documentary delves into the U.S. history of this commercial art form by focusing on a handful of sign painters who are proud to do their work by hand. 

Something clicked inside him, and in August, Sada became one of millions of Americans to quit their jobs in what has become known as the Great Resignation

Sada, a 2009 UTSA art graduate, launched Roots to Reality, his own bespoke sign painting business. He eschews the digital shortcuts of many modern sign companies, instead doing all his work by hand.  

Giving up teaching — and the regular paycheck that came with it — was terrifying but also exciting. 

“I felt alive, awake to this new direction,” he said.

Sada, a father of six who most recently taught art at Joel C. Harris Middle School, had been teaching for 14 years. He said he thoroughly enjoyed teaching and the purpose it gave to his life, but between COVID-19 and his mother’s death, he’d been thinking more about his own mortality, and how he wanted to spend his remaining time on this earth. 

He longed for more artistic expression in his life. 

“While teaching all those years, I’d find it difficult to work on personal artwork,” he said. “I’d manage to maybe complete a couple of paintings a year.” 

Sada is reluctant to call himself a sign painter, because he said that title should only be earned through years of apprenticeship. Instead, Sada calls himself a commercial artist who offers “various art services inspired by traditional sign painting techniques.” He specializes in logo and branding installations and offers traditional hand lettering.

Since starting his business, Sada said he has had a steady stream of clients. He has painted signs, windows, custom murals — even the side of a food truck. 

When Mixtli, the award-winning Mexican restaurant, was settled into its new location in Southtown, the owners commissioned Sada to match a swath of wallpaper in paint, because there was not quite enough of it to go floor to ceiling.  

Phillip Sada explains that he typically starts with a sketch of his ideas before elaborating on the design using digital platforms.
Phillip Sada says he typically starts with a sketch of his ideas before elaborating on the design using digital platforms. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

In the new year, Sada will be hand painting the logo for one of his favorite local bands, King Pelican, on a drum head. 

Roots to Reality’s first commission came courtesy of Eric Muchnick, president and CEO of Lou Jon Construction. Lou Jon was completing the DaVita South San Antonio Dialysis Center, and Muchnick did not like what the architect had planned for the space so he hired Sada to paint a mural instead. 

Sada painted a scene of monarch butterflies in flight, representing, he said, the people of South San Antonio. A banner in the mural reads “Ni de aqui, Ni de alla, neither from here nor from there,” in reference to the diverse backgrounds of the people in the area, which is not far from where Sada grew up, at East Southcross Boulevard and Dollarhide Avenue. 

Muchnick liked Sada’s work so much that he passed the artist’s information along to many of his architect friends in town.  

“He is so talented,” Muchnick said. “I wish I had more work for him.” 

When Sada quit his teaching job to devote himself full-time to his new business, he did so with the full support of his wife, Felicia Sada.  

“Felicia has supported my decisions since day one. She truly believes in my abilities and that’s very helpful,” he said.  

Former art teacher, Phillip Sada now operates a bespoke hand-painted sign business out of his home studio.
Former art teacher Phillip Sada operates a bespoke hand-painted sign business out of his home studio. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Sada also believes his change of course has inspired his three adult children to take risks in their own lives.  

Daughter Adrianna recently traveled through Spain and is embarking on a new career path, while son Julian is moving to Mississippi to further develop his music production company. Sada’s oldest son Hector, who is in the U.S. Air Force, is expanding his interest in film photography to offer repairs on highly collectible cameras. 

When Sada changed careers, he did not have any formal business training, so he’s learning that aspect of entrepreneurship as he goes. That includes the less pleasant parts of the job, like dealing with rejection and practicing the self-discipline to keep regular business hours instead of staying up all night to work on art, like he used to.

Between commissions, Sada spends time honing his craft, which often involves experimenting with different fonts on the walls of his art studio, located in the converted garage in Sada’s backyard in Roosevelt Park. He also regularly posts photos and time lapse videos of his work to his Instagram account, @roots_to_reality.

Asked what advice he would offer to anyone thinking of taking a similar leap, Sada said, “If it is life-giving, then go for it,” he said. “If your idea causes you to be slightly uncomfortable, then go for it. Don’t play it safe.”

Rebeca Gomez

Rebeca Gomez is a San Antonio-based writer with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting from Boston University. She is a lecturer and full-time staff member at UTSA.