Rugged outdoors pulls Pennsylvania native to Alaska, but artistic talents make him a success where he lives

Posted: Sunday, December 01, 2002

Signs are everywhere. Some give traffic warnings or direction, some advertise events and some try to lure people into businesses.

Other signs may be used by people with hearing or speaking impairments to "talk" with each other.

All signs communicate, but some do it with pizzazz.

On the Kenai Peninsula, chances are those signs -- the ones with style and grace, the ones with flair -- were created by G.F. Sherman Signs on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Soldotna.

Owner Guff Sherman is especially proud of his company's carved cedar signs that draw calls from passers-by complimenting his work.

One is at the Back Door Lounge in Kenai, another is in front of Soldotna's Liberty Professional Offices and another appears just as motorists come into Homer, featuring eagles and gold gilding and advertising the Alaskan Suites.

But those are hardly the only Sherman signs around the peninsula, nor are they the only type of signs the sign company produces.

In fact, Sherman Signs has created signs for most area municipal governments, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the state of Alaska, as well as nearly every business on the peninsula. Sherman also has produced signs in Anchorage and Alaska Bush communities around Dillingham, Iliamna and Kodiak.

His work may appear in the form of wood-carved or painted plywood signs, banners with computer-generated vinyl lettering, silk-screening or hand-painted pinstriping.

In addition to signs on or in front of buildings, Sherman signs also are applied to cars, trucks and vans, as well as boats and planes. What makes their work so noteworthy and sought after?

"We do design," said the 46-year-old Sherman, who founded the business in 1980.

Rather than simply using a computer-graphics program to print neatly lettered signs, Sherman is an artist, who learned to paint with a brush long before computers were in vogue.

He says that from his earliest childhood years in Hershey, Pa., he remembers being recognized for his art talent. As a matter of fact, one of his works was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when he was in seventh grade.

One of his first ventures into the world of commercial art consisted of doing pinstriping work on race cars for an uncle, who now teaches art at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.

Although Sherman credits much of his artistic talent to his architectural-engineer father, when just a teen-ager, the country-club kid disappointed him by declaring he wasn't going to college after high school, but was heading off to follow a dream in the rugged outdoors of Alaska.

That was 1977, when Sherman took his first sign-shop job in Anchorage. A year later, he returned to Pennsylvania to marry Colleen, now his wife of 24 years, who joined him living in a teepee -- their first Alaska home.

A short time later, the couple opted out of the big city and built their own sign shop where it still stands today across from the Red Diamond Center. To avoid paying rent or having a mortgage on a house and a business, the Shermans lived in the shop for the first five years as the business grew.

The sign shop itself has a distinctive sign featuring a likeness of Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, an ancestor of Guff Sherman's.

"Because of the family ties, I've done a lot of research on Gen. Sherman and discovered that he was also very interested in art.

"He enjoyed music and art and did all of his own drawings in his memoirs.

 

The sign at the Back Door Lounge is one of Sherman's creations.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Another thing I found interesting was that he died on Feb. 14. I was born on Feb. 14," said Guff Sherman. "One other thing is that in 80 years, he and I are the only two in the family to have red beards."

Sherman said he gets most of his work by being creative and offering good designs.

He compared the difference in sign shops to the difference between having a house built by a builder and having a house built with the design of an architect.

"There are really a lot of very good builders out there and they build really good, sound houses," he said.

"But then there are those houses that really stand out ... the truly special houses. They were designed."

Though he did dabble in fine art before settling on commercial art as a profession, Sherman said, "We combine fine art with most of our signage, but it's mostly commercial art.

"I have said that someday, after I've finished with my business, I would go back to fine art.

"What I do believe is that there's something everybody's supposed to do in life, and I feel it's a treat to be able to do it every day.

"The only one thing I know I can do for sure ... it's do design work," he said.

One sign his company recently completed for the city of Soldotna subtly discloses another passion of Sherman's -- his love for flying.

"Soldotna put out a bid for a sign on the gate at the Soldotna airport," he said.

"The city had purchased an iron gate for the airport and wanted a sign on it saying, 'Soldotna Municipal Airport.'

"The gate was a reproduction of a time-period type gate with a lot of very ornate steel.

"I saw the gate and felt the signage had to fit the appearance of the entry.

"An idea flashed to do the design to fit the ornamentation and I also thought it should be maintenance free and represent a part of Alaska history," he said.

Because he is a self-described advocate of the Super Cub airplane, which is said to be the favored choice of Alaska pilots, he incorporated a likeness of the Super Cub cut out of steel amid steel scroll work, atop an aluminum sign announcing the entrance to the airport.

"Our bid was the highest, but it was accepted by the city because they recognized that the design was the best," he said.

Sherman also "threw in" the design for all the smaller directional signs pointing to entrances and exits around the airport free of charge. Each of the smaller signs also incorporates a Super Cub likeness.

Sherman, who runs the sign shop with himself as the sole designer and two employees -- Dave Hartman and Rob Knapp -- who produce the signs, also is assisted by Colleen, who has been helping since the business began.

The couple resides along Longmere Lake in Sterling, where they keep their specially painted, Sherman-designed Super Cub.

 

Guff Sherman talks on the phone with a customer as artist Dave Hartman, right, helps customer Sandy Dallmann with her request at G. F. Sherman Signs.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Until recently, the house was shared with son Trevor, 20, and daughter, Jessica, 18, but Trevor has gone off to college at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York where he is majoring in graphic arts. He took one year off to play Junior A hockey in Canada before starting college.

Another form of sign work came into the Shermans' lives when Trevor was born deaf.

"We had to take (American Sign Language) signing classes when Trevor was 2 or 3 years old," said Sherman.

"He has hearing aids and can hear some sounds and read lips so he is able to communicate," Sherman said.

He said having a son born deaf was a lot of extra work, especially for a young couple starting out, and it presented a lot of questions.

"We wondered how he was going to go to school, how he was going to learn.

"Then, when we went to sign him up for hockey, they told us he couldn't play because he was handicapped," Sherman said.

League officials immediately reversed that decision after looking into the issue.

"At first, you have no idea what he can or can't do," Sherman said. "We sent him to the Alaska State School for the Deaf in Anchorage for first, second and third grades.

"He would only be home on weekends. It was really tough, because then he'd cry all the way back to Anchorage after each weekend.

"But we raised him like he didn't have a handicap -- that's the biggest thing we ever did for him," Sherman said.

"Consequently, he became successful.

"Here's what happened," Sherman quickly added. "He got voted team captain of the hockey team five years in a row."

Although he is not playing hockey this season, Trevor is working out in the gym every day and involved in kick boxing and yoga.

"He's also got a lot of talent as an artist ... he may have more talent than me," Sherman said.

"Will he use it?" he asks rhetorically.

The elder Sherman also believes daughter Jessica will find success "in whatever she does."

"Jessica has a lot of street sense. She could run this business right now. She has great business management skills," he said.

"She's just out of high school and she takes two hours each day and on weekends to work with the cheerleaders at (Soldotna High School).

"That's a lot of focus for an 18-year-old," he said.

While in high school, Jessica was a cheerleader and participated in lyrical and jazz dance. She currently attends classes at Kenai Peninsula College.

Guff Sherman also participated in sports when he was younger, swimming, playing golf and tennis with the country-club set and playing baseball, hockey, football and other sports in high school. But he didn't pursue them after high school, choosing instead to come to Alaska to hunt and fish.

Now, he and Colleen, who works as a sign-language interpreter for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, "just like being out."

"Sometimes, we just pack up the plane and fly up to Twin Lakes or the Harding Ice Field and have lunch," he said.

His future plans call for growing the business as the area grows.

"We can only do so much here," he said.

But he has no plans to move to larger markets to grow the business.

"Sometimes my wife and I just grab a few (fishing) rods and go off in the plane," he said.

"I wouldn't want to give that up."



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