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Painting with precision: Local sign makers strive to keep trade alive

Jared Froeber (left) and Cory Gillerstein (right) of Upper Hand Signs have worked as a creative team for nearly a decade. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership1 / 6
Cory Gillerstein paints a pinstripe on a tattoo sign. Both Gillerstein and Froeber try to do free-hand as much as possible. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership 2 / 6
Froeber and Gillerstein draw inspiration from font books, like the one shown here. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership3 / 6
The Upper Hand Signs studio is located at 11 8th St. S. in the former Dakota Business College building. Chelsey Engelhard Ewen / The Arts Partnership4 / 6
Upper Hand Signs tackle painting on any surface, such as this food truck. Photo courtesy Upper Hand Signs / Special to The Forum5 / 6
This brick wall offered another surface upon which to paint a sign. Photo courtesy Upper Hand Signs / Special to The Forum6 / 6

FARGO — In an age dominated by digital design, local sign painters Jared Froeber and Cory Gillerstein are adding a human touch to Fargo-Moorhead's aesthetic — one brushstroke at a time. Through their business Upper Hand Signs, the duo strives to revitalize the art of hand-lettering and traditional sign painting — a once full-fledged trade in the Upper Midwest.

"There's a certain value to having something created by hand that you can't replicate with computer graphics, and I don't think that'll ever go away," Froeber says as he sits on a paint-splattered stool in their cozy studio in the former Dakota Business College building. "Lettering was always a main focus for both of us, and it was kind of a natural transition (to sign painting)."

Froeber and Gillerstein have been a creative team for nearly a decade. They had art classes together at Fargo South High School and both studied graphic design in college.

But many of the skills they use everyday weren't learned in a classroom; they were either self-taught or passed down through demonstrations from the best sign painters in the country — many of whom are starting to retire.

"They want to keep (traditional sign painting) alive, and we want to keep those traditions going the right way," Froeber says.

"Everyone has different tips and tricks. There seems to be no finite way of doing things," Gillerstein chimes in. "And everyone has a different style, too. Once you get into it, you start to be able to tell certain sign painters by their designs, fonts and color choices."

Earlier this year, the pair received partial funding from The Arts Partnership to take a workshop with veteran sign painter Mike Meyer in Mazeppa, Minnesota.

Over the course of four days, they refreshed some of their skills and learned the history of traditional sign painting, proper brush strokes, letterforms, script, shading and more.

"(Meyer) was open to sharing everything he knows. He's really passionate about the trade and travels all over the world," Froeber says.

Although they're fairly new to the trade, Froeber and Gillerstein have already worked with a variety of clients since changing their business from Notorious Signs to Upper Hand Signs almost two years ago.

They also paint on a variety of surfaces — from food trucks to A-frames, brick walls to reclaimed wood — with meticulous craftsmanship that can look like vinyl at first glance. "That's what we strive for: computer precision but with a paintbrush," Gillerstein says.

That's not to say they don't work with computers; they often make digital mock-ups for their clients and work with them throughout the process even before paint hits the surface.

When they can, they enjoy mixing in their graphic design background with their "old school" hand-lettering skills.

When asked what happens if they make mistakes while painting, Froeber smiles and says, "The little imperfections, even if they drive me crazy, are what add to the appeal of the actual work and give it character."

"We have good relationships with other sign companies in the area, so we're happy to refer clients to them if that better suits their needs and vice versa," Gillerstein adds.

For now, Upper Hand Signs includes just the two-person team. Gillerstein and Froeber enjoy educating people about traditional sign painting and hope it continues to make a comeback.

"Signs are ubiquitous to the landscape. You hardly notice them until you think to look for them," Froeber says. "Once you make the connection that someone painted (a sign), it gives it a new meaning."

Upper Hand Signs is located at 11 8th St. S., Studio 203 in downtown Fargo.

For more information, visit upperhandsigns.com.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.

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