Maker Crush: Introducing Leticia Maldonado

Leticia is a gal I met in LA when she came to help with one of my installations.  I knew her solely on Instagram and thought I'd direct message her to ask for her help since I knew she lived in town.  She jumped to help and I couldn't have been more grateful.  I really couldn't have done it without her.

She's fixing to be a lifer in the neon industry, currently building her own shop and works closely with and mentors under a veteran in his space.  The amount of commitment I've seen over the years has resulted in some super sexy and intricate bending by my girl.  She keeps getting better and better.  More on Leticia, the work you can expect to see in September and an interview below.

Leticia is drawn towards smaller millimeter glass and the rarer used noble gases like Krypton and Argon (Argon, that is, without mercury.  Teaching moment: Argon is more commonly used in combination with Mercury. Rarely is Argon used alone because it's so dim.  The mercury makes it brighter.  Argon by itself barely competes with direct sunlight, thus is not used frequently in neon's main job, signage.) Leticia bends super small tubing (5mm) not normally meant for commercial applications.  To bend this size glass takes a considerable amount of skill; the tubing is much smaller on the inside which raises the risk of the tubing kinking and sealing itself closed on the inside.  It's kinda crazy. 

Leticia's roses are especially soft and delicate but she also has a funky side to her work.  She will be making larger roses for the exhibition with MONA (Museum of Neon Art, Los Angeles) in September.  The detail she renders in glass is so illustrative.  The beading krypton adds another hypnotizing element. 

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I am excited to have the opportunity to talk with Leticia more about her own experience with the medium.  Everyone's journey is different even though the material is the same.  We learn through doing and we all learn in different ways.  For Leticia, she has a mentor and has committed to building her shop (work in progress).  She would call herself a beginner but she's a great bender, surely not an amateur.  Let's talk shop.

MP: Okay, let's get the obligatory questions out of the way.  Why neon?  What drew you to the medium?

LM: Honestly, I think I was brainwashed. I grew up in Las Vegas and my Mom was a cocktail waitress in some of the casinos. All through elementary school, she worked a shift that finished at 3 AM.  Even on school nights, my stepdad would wake me up to go and get her. In my sleepy haze we’d drive right down the strip in the middle of the night. I remember looking at the beautiful signs of The Dunes, The Tropicana, The Flamingo, and The Stardust, and in my isolated desert-youth they represented an exciting adult life of autonomy that I couldn’t wait to arrive at.  Just a giant, glamorous, electric fantasy land. The first time I tried concertedly to get someone to teach me I was 17. That bug has been there all my life.  The fascination could’ve gone a lot of ways I guess, but I am a maker and not a gambler, so actually making the lights was a natural avenue.

Leticia in the studio.  Photo by Zane Roessell

Leticia in the studio.  Photo by Zane Roessell

MP: How did you manage to first get in the fires?

LM: It was a long train of me cold calling benders I found on the internet and just being continually turned down. Then I stumbled across Lili Lakich’s design and fabrication class, and I thought, “No glass working, but let me just start somewhere. Maybe I can impress her with my enthusiasm, and she’ll introduce me to someone.” I still had to ask two more benders before I was introduced to Michael Flechtner, and I consider that a piece of serendipity. Flechtner speaks my language, and it’s been a gift to learn from him.  He designed a two month, 35 hour per week bending intensive, and that was exactly what I was looking for. In hindsight, I’m glad that I started with Lili’s class (which I took twice, because she’s such a knowledgeable person I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything) because it gave me a thorough context of the workings of a sign. It laid the foundation for me to begin understanding the process of bending.

MP: What do you remember to be your initial thoughts about your first time bending?

LM: It wasn’t as easy as it looked, and I thought I was going to be better at it. The tactile sensation of the glass softening and becoming malleable in the fire, cooling, and then losing that malleability was initially very exciting to me. The amount of focus that was needed was also astonishing to me, and how a stray few thoughts could tangibly show in the bending once you were out of the fires and trying to make the glass move in certain ways.

MP: Talk a bit about your mentorship.  What sort of relationship or arrangement do you have?

LM: My mentor and teacher is Michael Flechtner. It started out as a contained experience within a finite time frame, and I didn’t know what was going to happen after that, or how I was going to keep in the fires.  Michael is a very generous person though, both with his time and knowledge, and he allowed me to keep bending on my own using his equipment and studio after the intensive ended. That’s been my working situation for around 4 years now.  I think somewhere in there, underneath my pestering him with questions and finding out we have a similar sense of humor, we became good friends and he is one of my all-time favorite humans.  He is a master of his craft and his ideas in the medium are astounding. Definitely it’s my great luck to have learned, and to continue to learn from him.

MP: The roses are so beautiful.  What's behind this work both conceptually and from the perspective of the process?  

LM: Thank you! I take a serious love of plants from my grandmother, and for most of my life I’ve felt that the energy of a growing thing is a really important facet of any space I live in.  As I research botany on my own, I am continually amazed by their existence and process.  I live with several houseplants that I’ve owned for many years. They have moved with me from space to space as friends that I feel responsible for. Some of my first ideas in neon were from desires to pay homage to these beautiful things in my life that I was insanely grateful for.  I think the spare and very dynamic elements of a neon light are the perfect material to attempt this from, and a way to also put a little bit of organic experience for myself in a very rigid medium. I know when I am drawing my rose patterns that some of what I’m hoping for is impossible, but I also know that whatever adjustments I make will be acceptable, just as a real plant adjusts to the realities of its environment while retaining its definition. Ultimately, I just very much enjoy organic shapes and it brings me a pleasure to study them.

Work in progress for "She Bends" at MONA, September 16th

Work in progress for "She Bends" at MONA, September 16th

MP: Could you talk a bit about the work you will be making for the exhibition?  

LM: Another thing I am captivated by, are symbols of magic or power. Not power over others but power over self, within a personal narrative. I’m really excited by tarot cards as a representation of this idea, and a way to draw a kind of tangible treasure map of personal experience. For this exhibition, I have chosen to interpret the meanings of three cards: The Lovers, Death, and The Empress, using floral imagery and states of being, and another favorite material, mirrors.

MP: Hows the studio set up coming?  Can you talk a bit about what's involved and what you may be learning?

LM: Setting up my own set of fires is the most out-of- my-element I’ve felt in this entire journey to date.  It’s a whole other set of information apart from glass working that strikes me as quite dangerous if miss-interpreted. I’m running mine off of a propane tank, and in addition to making them serviceable, I’m trying to understand a set of measures and pressures previously foreign to me. It’s been an understanding that has coalesced in steps with the assistance of many sources. As I acquire a few components and study them, the next considerations present themselves and the information is just compounding.  I’m about two mechanical parts away from having everything I need and then I will sit down in the middle of them and puzzle it all together. This completion will likely be my favorite moment of the entire year, as it will herald a new level of independence in my exploration of bending.

MP: What's been the most challenging thing about neon for you?  I know, the whole thing is challenging but which aspects in particular? And what are things that are easy for you?

LM: I’d say my biggest challenge is just to stay in it at all. It’s an expensive medium, and striking a balance between learning, expressing myself as an artist, offering myself as a fabricator in order to sustain my own exploration, and working a day/night job to make my rent and life expenses is murder. I want with all my heart to make things with my hands for a living. I’ve jumped more than once, had and lost my first art studio, worked two jobs, got it back, saved up for equipment, and it’s all been heartbreaking at times.  All of my life I’ve been compelled to make things. I’ve finally found a medium that satisfies all of my urges as an artist and makes me feel direction as a person, and the hardest part is just fighting circumstance to stay in it and keep learning.

What’s been easy is to move forward into my imagination from the perspective of this medium. I am thoroughly seduced, and the possibilities of neon are constantly in my peripheral thoughts when they’re not in the forefront of them. One of the best articles on creativity I’ve ever read began with the premise, “What do you want to suffer for?”  To commit to an art form is hard and uncomfortable; you have to love it enough to hurt for it. And I really do. No question.

MP:What's it like for you being a woman in the field?  

LM: Well I’m not full time yet, so I don’t think I’m experiencing the full brunt of what that question means.  I’ll say that for the most part, the male benders that I’ve encountered with my questions for knowledge, have been forthwith and supportive. The female benders have been extra supportive, and I’m really grateful for the sense of community from both.

MP:What is your outlook on neon in the world today? I know we've talked a bit about how we feel about where neon is going, the highs and lows of the industry, it being taken seriously as an art form.  Wanna weigh in here?

LM: I feel that this is a weird time for neon as an industry and a medium.  There is a real disparity between its popularity among artists, which is strong getting stronger, and its scarcity as far as raw materials. Neon’s original rise in demand was due to its beautiful propensity for arresting commercial advertising.

As that commercial demand wanes in favor of the cheaper material of LEDS, which also do not require the work of a skilled crafts person, neon manufacturing is declining steadily. Colors become obsolete, and the availability of glass is dependent on foreign manufacturing. It’s a weird space to witness as a crafts person, when artists are constantly approaching me with enthusiasm for commissioned work, and local distributors just answer with a string of no’s in my attempt to secure specific materials.  What I’m hoping will occur, as the rise of social media makes a demand for cultural content as product, and artists are moving into the space previously held by commercial advertisers, is that art and creative expression will rise as a powerful force of commerce, and there might be a justification in the resurgence of manufacturing and innovation.  I think there is definitely a wave of younger tube benders that are holding the torch and will be there to meet and accentuate it.

MP: What are you goals for your future in the medium? 

LM: To be a good crafts person. To reach a point in my skill set where I could take on any pattern, and anyone with a bit of knowledge in the field could look at my work and say, “That’s well made.” Also, for my ego, I want to work on neon that ends up on the Las Vegas Strip. That is my hometown and in every way possible, I am from there.  In the way that graffiti artists do, I just want to bomb the shit out of that street, and continue the legacy that initially dazzled me.

You can see Leticia's work among other female neon makers this fall, September 16th at The Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles.  The show will run until February.