Photos by Alexandra Martin
Cory Gillerstein and Jared Froeber are perhaps the most visible artists in Fargo Moorhead. Their work can be found everywhere from small pieces downtown to large scale works that span feet upon feet of real estate. And you might not even have registered that you’ve seen their work.
Gillerstein and Froeber are the men behind Upper Hand Signs, a full-service, custom sign shop focused on traditional sign-making techniques. Committed to the old-school trade of sign painting, they take the bygone craft and create modern signage solutions with a flair for traditional hand-made craftsmanship.
Gillerstein and Froeber are both have degrees in graphic design and have a keen eye for what makes a great design. While the two have a love for design, they didn’t want to necessarily sit behind computer screens, tweaking pixels for the rest of their lives. And so Upper Hand Signs was born as a loophole to combine their graphic design abilities with an artful yet utilitarian trade.
“It kind of grew naturally into something that people liked and wanted to see more of. And we can just keep painting for a living,” said Gillerstein. “I don’t really consider it as a job.”
It’s only fitting that these men who are dedicated to preserving the art of traditional sign painting have their studio in the historic Dakota Business College building. The temperature in the studio varies as it pleases, swinging from toasty to frigid, depending on the day. And a Hank Williams record from the 1950s plays muffled beneath the city sounds coming from the open windows. A step into this workspace is transportive, sending one back to a time they might not have even been alive during. A time where if you wanted to let clients know what your business was, you hired a painter to create a custom work at the storefront.
In many small towns throughout the rural United States, stories-high murals serve as benchmarks of former liveliness. They conjure visuals of a slower life, when shop owners knew their customers by name and imperfections were signs of authenticity, not flaws. As the paint fades and chips off of these decades-old signs, there’s been a resurgence for that same hand-made, thoughtful feeling. And Upper Hand Signs is here to carry on the rich heritage of hand-painted signs and to bring the craft into the modern era.
There’s a certain spark brought to something that was created by hand. No matter how you try, technology and a computer just can’t replicate that feeling. In the 1950s, the plotter was invented by Remington-Rand. While this invention was groundbreaking, it also quickly put a lot of hand-painting sign makers out of business. All these professionals who spent their whole careers learning and studying the craft soon got pushed out by computers and machinery. “It became this race to the bottom, who can do stuff the fastest or the cheapest,” said Froeber. “It’s interesting because it killed the industry for a number of years, and now it is sort of coming back.”
These two saw the potential in the industry and knew it could be a successful business. But to embark on this business, they wanted to do it right. So they set out to learn as much as they could. “That’s the interesting thing about sign painting, is that it is an art, yes, but there is a correct way to do things, and it is a really process-driven art too. So there is a correct way with a lot of steps you can kind of go through,” said Froeber. Not many businesses were actively sign painting, but there’s a good number of retired sign painters in the area, ready to pass on the process. “Some of our best friends now retired [sign painters] who just like to share what they learned during their career with us,” said Froeber. Gillerstein and Froeber are grateful for this insight and look forward to seeing how they can continue on the legacy of the trade.
“We don’t want to just be two guys out on our own. We really want to learn things the right way and learn about the way things were, to pay our respects to the people that came before us,” said Froeber. “We’ve learned so much in the years we’ve been doing this, but it doesn’t even compare to somebody that’s done it a long time.”
In addition to consulting the masters of years past, the upper Hand Signs team stresses the use of good references. They collect old signs and have a collection of photos and vintage sign making textbooks to guide them. This keeps them tied to traditional and timeless designs that are sure to work. “I think, more so than ever, there are just things that work and still work now the way they worked a hundred years ago,” said Froeber. Such elements include are compositions, color combinations and letter styles. Staying attuned to these allows the men to continue melding traditional styles with contemporary updates.
Both Gillerstein and Froeber were born and raised in Fargo. Having strong roots to the community means they have that extra desire to make the town looks as best as it can. “We’re from this town, we want to see it look good. We want to put our mark on the landscape and just make it look nice,” said Froeber. Of course, the duo wants to drum up business, but they also want to draw awareness to the importance of good signs. “People don’t really know that there are other options out there,” said Froeber. He added that he’s seen businesses who put in incredible efforts on their interior design and perfecting every detail and then putting up a basic vinyl sign as almost an afterthought. “We want people to think about exterior design just as much as they think about interior design, he said. The Upper Hand Sign men hold the key to making our streets look vibrant and inviting, and they want to share that key as much as possible.
“To us, it’s about caring. We care about clients. We care about our work. We care about our town. We want to do work that we feel good about,” said Froeber. “I want to like what I look at when I pass by,” Gillerstein added.
When entrusted with a client’s brand and their business, Upper Hand Signs takes this task very seriously. And at the end of the day, they are grateful to have clients that put their trust in them and to be in a city that puts its trust in them, too.