SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) — Local artist Tim Peterson has been handcrafting signs in the Black Hills since he opened his shop in Spearfish in 1994.

Though he's become well known throughout the Black Hills and even the world as visitors from far and wide have expressed appreciation for his signage, Peterson never set out to become a master signsman.

Peterson graduated from Northern State University in Aberdeen with a fine arts degree in the late 70s. As he traversed the uncertainty of postgraduate life, the young artist happened into a small sign shop not far from his home.

"I was unemployed, and I needed them to sign my unemployment benefits card so I could continue drawing unemployment benefits. I was single, having a good time, I wasn't looking for a job, I didn't want a job," Peterson said with a laugh. "And they hired me! They knew full well of my art background, so they put me on a truck, climbing ladders, changing lamps and ballasts, this was a commercial sign shop, digging holes and putting up structures."

Peterson told the Black Hills Pioneer that it was the best thing that could have happened to him at the time as it familiarized him with aspects of the business he never had any experience with.

"I learned how to use power tools and how to do engineering," he said. "And how to make something that's going to last and not blow down."

After a year of grunt work, the company Peterson worked for gave him paint and brushes and set him to task painting signs.

Peterson put his skills to work for a couple different sign companies before moving to Spearfish and opening Flat Earth Art Co., located at 3123 E. Fairgrounds Loop. He built his brand name from the ground up.

"There was another shop in town at the same time, Grizzly Sign Studio, and he has since retired," Peterson said. "And he was doing world-class work, and I was frankly quite intimidated to think that I could compete with this guy in his town was a challenge for me. Especially not knowing anyone."

Not being a man afraid of good old-fashioned hard work, Peterson took to the streets and started knocking on doors.

"The hardest thing I've ever done, I've got such respect for people that come in my door trying to sell me something cold."

From those humble beginnings, word spread through the Black Hills of Peterson and his timelessly handcrafted signs.

For the most part Peterson works by himself, with the exception of help from his children when a particular insulation job requires. Everything Peterson does is done to scale by hand.

"I don't have a computer in my shop that I use for production purposes," he said. "I use my computer for communication only. Sending artwork back and fourth and estimates and that sort of thing."

While most modern day sign shops use digital equipment to produce crisp clean lines, Peterson employs tried and true methods that have stood the test of time.

"Just about every technique I use other than the use of electrical power tools is centuries old," Peterson said. "I could walk into a shop in the 1800s and be just fine."

Once Peterson has come up with a design that the client likes, and fits the aesthetic of the business as well as the building itself, he creates a full scale mock up with pencil and paper. After he has the design and dimensions just right, Peterson uses a tool called a pouncing needle, which creates a perforated outline of the design without cutting the image completely out. Then he rubs a charcoal pad other the design, and the charcoal is able to pass through the perforation and create a stencil of each letter or element of the sign which Peterson can use to cut the pieces out of what ever material that's required. It's the same technique used to paint the Sistine Chapel.

"This is kickin' it really old school," Peterson said.

Peterson is currently in the process of refocusing his talents back to the fine arts degree he started out with.

"After having a bunch of kids, who are now out of the house, I've been able to return to that pursuit," he said

"I travel quite a lot doing plein air artist events in the west, Colorado, Utah, places like that. I've made a pretty good living doing it the old way, I bought a house and raised four kids, I've got all the toys a man could want. Life is good."


Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, http://www.bhpioneer.com