Maker Crush: Introducing Romily Alice

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You are a pretty well known musician is this right?  How did a musician get into bending neon for herself?

I left school to tour and play in a band when I was about 17 and did that up until about 5 years ago. I fell into music as an extension of art so I’ve always been interested in having a creative output and in that way the move back into art when I stopped playing with the band felt pretty natural. 

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When I decided to go back to art school I knew I wanted to get into sculpture and installlation and after doing a one day course at Neon Workshops in Wakefield I felt pretty confident that neon bending was something I wanted to pursue. I’m very interested in the concept of the artist as maker so there was an instant necessity to learn the craft.

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Do you have your own shop?  If not, what is your arrangement for bending?  Do you have a mentor?

After training for a while I decided to get a studio and have my own fires; the bombarding equipment is way beyond my means and I’m still waiting to luck out on finding a second-hand set. So for now I bend my own work and then go to a neon shop nearby where I have a great relationship with the guys there and can use their bombarder.

When I was first trying to learn and looking for somewhere to train or work I got a lot of nos from a lot of neon artists. I understand that its been a tough ride for the neon industry in recent years so the desire to protect one’s skills and business is understandable. In the end it just made me more determined to find a way in. It was only when I finally worked at a neon shop that I realised the number of emails that they were getting a week from people who thought neon bending looked easy and wanted to learn! So I suppose there’s a sort of hazing that goes on. I don’t particularly like that attitude but I understand it.

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The works your showing with the Museum of Neon Art are incredible.  Tell us about the work, it's concepts and also the technical side of fabricating these works.

Thank you! This installation was a big step forward for my practice; for a while I’d been feeling frustrated at the limitations of wall-based work. I wanted to stay with neon but add some other sculptural elements into the work whilst also moving it off the wall and into installation.

It was definitely challenging to create and pushed me to refine a lot of my technical skills. The work is reasonably large scale so there’s the obvious intensity of that much glass-bending, but really is was the other elements: the mounting onto clear acrylic and the mechanics of the bases that were the most challenging and time consuming aspects of the fabrication. The installation is made up of a lot of individual components so a lot of different trade-skills were required to build it: glass bending, mounting, electronics, laser cutting, mold making, concrete laying etc.

All of my work is concept-led so the research for this piece was focused in on the idea of Utopias - of women’s bodies as a site for the construction and destruction of fantasy, the affects of the digital on the ways in which we view and use our physicality, and the limitations placed on women’s sexual agency in both online and offline domains.  

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You are from Berlin.  I've learned along the way that bending neon can differ from country to country.  Not only the power sources are different but the process of flame-working the glass is as well.  Could you discuss the differences in neon from the US to Germany?

I’ve actually just moved to Berlin but I’m from London where there’s a big neon heritage. One of the main differences over there is the UK style of neon bending which involves a flame that heats the glass from a singular point as opposed the US style canon or cross fires that heat the glass from multiple directions with multiple jets of flame. Funnily enough though I use the US-style as I find it a lot less time consuming (sorry England!)

What were your initial thoughts after bending for the first time?  And then, what made you addicted?

I was instantly transfixed. There’s an elemental and alchemical quality to neon making which I find fascinating. I’m also a sucker for punishment so when I realized how hard it was I was like “where do I sign up?”

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How do you feel the history of neon in the commercial world plays a role in your works?  In other words, the use of the naked female form in neon historically is used for strip clubs. How does your work attempt to pull away from this inherent idea, or does it? 

This is definitely a considered element in my choice of subject and materials. The history of neon as used in both the commercial and sex industries provides a ready-made platform from which you can manipulate and challenge these cultural associations. One of the first projects I did with neon was born out of researching strip club neons and realising what a signifier they were for the singular beauty ideal that dictates the way women’s bodies “should” look in contemporary Western culture. 

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I know what I’m interesting in talking about with my work and what I’ve spent time researching in order to create it; but an audience will always bring their own ideas to the piece. Whilst some people may understand my work as a re-framing of the male gaze, others may read it more literally. I think the key thing is that a discussion is being had.

What has your experience been as a women in a male dominated industry? 

There’s a lot of misogyny in our culture and obviously that finds its way down into every aspect of industry. I’ve mostly experienced it in being consistently underestimated. Its infuriating when I get asked by men (#notallmen) how I make my work only for them to then explain to me(incorrectly) how neon is made. But with a male dominated industry comes a group of defiant and determined women who find their way in. And shows like this are amazing opportunities to reflect upon that achievement and exemplify the potential for women to work at and within whatever industry and profession they want.

Does anyone ever ask you, "Who makes your neon?"

All the time. When I was in a band it was “whose girlfriend are you.” Ugh. Often its well meaning people who aren’t trying to offend but when its such a common assumption its reads to me as

a) a signifier of the assumption that women can’t “make” work that involves industrial process

b) an indication of the severity of the separation between high art and craft in the public consciousness.

I think both of these things are hugely problematic.

Do you ever get frustrated seeing neon works from artists that didn't make it themselves?

I think everyone has their own skillsets. I sometimes find it surprising when an artist who works mainly with neon isn’t interested in learning to make their own work, but that’s because I love process and so for me not making my own work would feel like a punishment. Saying that recently I’ve had to let go of the fabrication of some of my pieces because of practical and geographical constraints which is a new experience for me, so I guess its about being flexible.