IF I had to choose a favorite contemporary neon artist, it would be Kate Hush. First of all, she bends, and secondly, the medium actually aligns conceptually with her imagery and intention. Drawing inspiration from nostalgia, both in neon and film, Kate is inspired by vintage cinema's depictions of females.
The voice of neon in the past HAS been mostly male. Kate's work doesn't stop at depicting the female form. Kate gives her women personality, reliability and a story. As she says in so many words, they are a mirror reflecting the way men see women - crazy and emotional. "You're going to call them crazy bitches anyways, may as well light them that way." Kate creates story of nasty women, femme fatales. Paper Magazine described her work as "Times Square meets film noir". Link to that interview here. Make sure to check it out, it's a really good one.
The other thing I love about Kate is that she fights to maintain the integrity of other artists work and to educate people about neon as a trade and an art form. More about that in the interview below.
I'm so excited to meet Kate next weekend at "She Bends". The show opens September 16th and most of the women will be in attendance. Pick up tickets here
You teach neon workshops in Brooklyn correct? For any interested Brooklyn readers, could you talk about what is taught and what people can expect when taking a neon class?
My 8 week class (which I hope to run again soon) is definitely geared towards people who have never touched neon before, and in it I focus on my students creating pieces that lean towards the abstract. This allows everyone to really experiment with material, color, and shape as opposed to creating neon that is a deliberate object - which can be very restrictive. It actually forces everyone to look at neon in whole new way than they may have before. In my experience almost everyone is used to viewing it as either lettering or commercial signage. I also think the students have a much easier time learning how to work with the glass when that pressure of having to bend within a rigid layout is eased. I have worked in other classes where students were trying to bend these patterns that were way above their pay grade and I was constantly talking them off of a cliff. But it’s certainly not a free-for-all in my class - I do go over all of the different bending techniques in the first few weeks of our session. We do splices, double backs, right angles, etc., so everyone leaves with a good foundation to be able to create more complicated figurative pieces in the future. What I am really trying to do is make their first experience with neon both as non-frustrating and fulfilling as possible.
You have released neon animated GIFs. Is this something you did before you got into neon or during? Could you explain the connection, if any, of these animations with your neon work?
I started doing digital neon before I ever knew I would be stepping foot in a neon shop. I had never worked with glass, and didn’t have any access to it. But, I loved neon and had studied digital graphics - so I figured out how to create my own version on the computer. The first handful that I did were only okay, they weren’t too convincing, but they are what paved the way for me to get into doing the real thing. If I had never worked and worked at making these digital replicas, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now. It was stepping into the shop with a decent grasp of how a neon design should work that allowed me to pick up the actual skill so quickly. And once I arrived in the studio, I didn’t stop making the digital pieces just because I gained access to the glass - I was creating even more of them. It all really started to go hand in hand because eventually all of my digital pieces would start as one of the most integral parts of a neon piece - the bending pattern. Every digital work you see on my Tumblr, I first draw in large scale in Illustrator, just as if I was creating a pattern to bend glass on. And learning each technique from creating those patterns, to the glass bending, to the application of blockout paint, to learning the way animation worked really helped me heighten my digital pieces even more. The biggest connection I have between the two is that to this day, I have not created a single neon artwork in the glass tubing without making it digitally first, so I am able to fully visualize what I can do with it. When I have a design in front of me on the screen that looks as close to the real thing as possible, I can get a pretty accurate idea of how it will look in it’s completion - from how the animation will work, to what colors I should use, to what size it needs to be in order to get the necessary detail.
Speaking of animation, many of your neon pieces have animated elements. First I'd like to discuss your concepts behind the animation of the neon as well as the technical aspect of it. How does it work and what do you have to do or plan for to make a piece have an animated element?
When it comes to my all of my pieces conceptually - I love cinema and visual storytelling and I am heavily inspired by that. Most of my work can be seen as snapshots from a scene, or a freeze frame of some action. But what’s even better than a frame? A sequence. Having the ability to include some sort of movement, like cutting a section of film reel, allows me to go one step further in the story I am telling. A classic stationary neon piece is great, but sometimes I need just one more element of the story to be told through an animation.
And when it comes to the really specific technical planning for animations, this is terrible - but I don’t check if anything is actually possible before I do it, but I think I have a pretty good grasp on what is truly impossible to do, and what isn’t. The most I'll do is a digital test run of how the animation should look. Other than that, I simply break up the units according to what needs to be lit as a standalone. But I don’t sit and say “this is how this unit will need to be mounted in order to be on the top layer” or even attempt to figure out exactly what kind, or how many transformers I will need.
This is because I am the person that is always twenty minutes early, I have my route picked and my plans in stone, so when I do these crazy neon pieces I sort of have to have this, “well, fuck this, I’m just doing it” attitude or I would never have the time to get to it done. I know I will eventually figure it out after it’s bent, and so far I always have. I also think I am pushed to bypass a majority of the pre-planning headaches with my own pieces because you do tend to hear a lot of “no”, or “that’s not possible”, or “that’s too much glass” when it comes to making neon. I even find myself telling clients that at times. So of course, I want to avoid it. I don’t care if I have to have 25 transformers crammed into a box with 50 leads to make it happen, I will do it. I love the wires and the power supplies, and I’m not here to give you some factory finished looking sculpture. Neon wasn’t meant to be a minimalist’s aesthetic dream, you need to embrace the wires and the transformers and the imperfect paint edges. If I could go into every retail space that is trying to sell these pre-made, hidden wire, hidden transformer, white-on-white-on-white-on-white pieces and rip them off of the wall I would :).
Okay, your first time in the fires? How did that come about and what was your initial reaction to doing it for the first time?
My first time in the fires was during a neon weekend workshop at Brooklyn Glass. I remember we were bending these curly squiggle pieces on the ribbon burner. And for those who don’t know, the ribbon burner is no small fire. That flame is huge and hot as hell to a beginner. I remember positioning my hands on my raspberry glass and s l o w l y lowering it into the fire when all of a sudden the instructor grabbed both of my wrists and yanked me right above the flame and into the scorching heat. I was ready to KILL him - I mean, in that moment, I knew exactly how I would drag his body into the murky Brooklyn canal nearby. But I quickly got over it. The more I was attempting to control the glass the more I was forgetting about the heat radiating towards my skin and the flame just centimeters from my fingers. My glass was changing it’s state right before me and becoming almost liquid. It was bizarre, and new, and I loved it.
What are some of your favorite colors/gases to work with?
It’s no secret to anyone that knows me that my absolute favorite color to use is Tecnolux’s n.217 Raspberry. I have yet to see anything that matches that perfect fuchsia, and now it’s longer in production. So apologies to everyone, but I made sure to take almost every last tube of it that was produced, and you are not getting a single one.
I want to know how neon seduced you. What made you addicted to the process and material? How does neon relate to the concepts of your work?
I was definitely seduced by neon the first time I saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo. When Kim Novak steps out of the darkness and into the green neon glow of the hotel room revealing her final physical transformation within this otherworldly light. That green was perfect, it wouldn’t have been the same if she busted into the room under a white Sylvania bulb. The neon was her costar, and to this day that scene both inspires and relates directly to my work. Femmes Fatales, wicked women, they are my bread and butter - and they have almost always had some connection to neon in modern literature and film. Whether it was in their city backdrops, or if they were directly bathed in it’s hue, they will always be perfect companions. So why not combine them? I wanted the women I create to actually be the neon not just be beneath it.
Despite neon's resurgence in pop culture, it's had a history of being seedy and relating to strip clubs etc. Your works sort of "take it back" in a sense that you embrace this aesthetic of neon by implementing the female form with animated elements. They are certainly nostalgic of these types of signs while also being uniquely you, modern and kind of feminist or femme fatale. Am I off base or......would you elaborate?
I never set out with any specific intentions directly related to those creature-from-the-black-lagoon-with-tits-and-a-wig signs that are housed outside of strip clubs. But, I think the women I create are definitely part of some reaction towards depictions of us within that vein, coming out of these masculine spaces. And in 2017 neon as a whole is still a hugely masculine space we’re all slowly but surely navigating our way through. There’s no way that I’m not being influenced by what I witness in this particular world, among many other things.
And when it comes to the physical specificity of my neon, you are spot on - I do use these farfetched and hyperbolic femmes fatales as a vehicle for my message. I employ them as a funny yet flagrant display of all that is supposedly wrong with women - they are sideshow mirrors reflecting back the laughable, but at the same time, horrible, violent, and disgusting things that are said about women or done to women, simply because we have the audacity to be female. I’m using these sensationalized characters as visual vehicles to display our purportedly worst traits in exaggerated and humorous ways - sex, greed, violence, theft, manipulation, lying, cheating, etc. And neon is the perfect medium to use because of it’s seedy reputation. It’s semi-squalid history helps lend even more layering to the meaning of my work - especially as an ocular pasquinade. My pieces are a P.S.A. in lights begging the question “C’mon you think we’re really this bad?”
Since you work in a commercial space, I'd like you talk a bit about what clients should know when approaching neon shops. There is a bit of a disconnect between consumer and maker in this field, simply because the process is so unknown to most and there's a considerable learning curve for clients. I know we've lamented about this before and was hoping you could give your two cents in an effort to educate people about approaching shops for custom works.
If their is one thing I would love to educate clients on, it’s the fact that neon is 100% handmade, and it’s never going to be pristine or perfect - but that’s why it’s great. It will always, until the end of time, have a unique and human touch to it. The visible splices, the wires, the glass coating that can be slightly faded at the bends, the strokes of paint done by hand - these are elements that truly make neon both a special and artistic object. It’s not like ordering a light out of a catalog, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. One of the biggest obstacles that I know every fabricator faces is when the client wants you to do everything in your power to disguise the fact that they’re getting neon, when they should be embracing it! That’s why you’re seeking out neon and not some perfect machine-molded LED sign. That’s boring and looks straight off of a Wal-Mart shelf.
Also - how the hell does no one understand what “to scale” means?? Come on!
Within the same vein, what are things that collectors should know about buying neon artworks. Neon art has had a larger presence in the art world and pop culture these days. What are your thoughts and feelings about how it translates to the growth of the industry, if at all.
I could go on about what collectors should know about purchasing neon artworks, but I want to keep it simple and concise - make sure you receive ALL of the fabrication info when purchasing a piece or keep in touch with those who possess it (and no it’s usually not the artist). You’ll want access to the bending pattern, the install pattern, the exact glass color and diameter, and the contact info of the shop or person who originally fabricated it. Glass is fragile, and if something happens to a piece you own down the line (probably because you insisted on having an “art installer” put it up instead of a neon shop…), having all of this information will save you many many headaches. The shop I work out of does a lot of fine art restoration of vintage pieces, and I myself have had to recreate bending patterns for artworks made over 30 years ago based off a crummy, blurry, and tiny thumbnail image because the original piece was smashed and the bending pattern was lost, or never even saved. It is a pain for everyone involved and totally avoidable.
And I believe neon artworks have absolutely helped the entire industry grow overall. Listen, we all know that big corporations steal from artists and have been doing it since their inception. So when neon art really started blowing up in the past decade or so through the internet and image sharing services, these big ad agencies, or production studios, or huge fashion houses saw that these artistic pieces were trending and they wanted a piece of the action too - which in turn makes consumers want it. Neon is all of a sudden this totally accessible thing that John and Jane Doe can have in their home, at their wedding, in their business, or restaurant. It’s almost a status symbol now, when it used to be something very grungy.
You've dealt with some copyright issues along the way. Neon presents a bit of a gray area when it comes to sign vs. art. I'd love to dive into this topic with you.
I have yet to have someone directly rip off my actual glass and gas neon, it’s really the digital pieces that are ripe for theft. I once found that a foreign pop musician comprised an entire music video out of my artwork that now has hundreds of thousands of views, and I was given zero credit. I attempted to file a copyright claim through YouTube and they blew me off saying I didn’t have “enough hard evidence”. What a total crock of shit. That’s the biggest downside to sharing your art - the lazy rich assholes that take it for their own profit, and the person that had the ability to create it, something these thieves could not do, is left in the dust. What I don’t really mind too much though is when fellow artists are inspired by my style and go off and create their own thing, sometimes even borrowing elements of my pieces, because that’s what art should do - beget other art. But I’m certainly not sharing my pieces online so some motherfucker at a big media conglomerate can make a buck off of it.
Also, I feel like I have to add this in here for those who seem to make any project brought to them - if you work at a neon shop and someone comes to you with an image of an already completed neon piece that they’re asking you to fabricate - vet that shit! It’s not hard or impossible, reverse image search is your friend. There are definitely occasions where clients send in digital versions they’ve made of neon that they now want to make in glass, but it’s rare. I can’t count how many times I have had to turn away potential clients looking to make another artist’s work they found online. I don’t know why people have this idea that because it’s made in neon it’s perfectly ok to copy? Especially if it’s text based, that’s the most rampant. When people ask me how much it would be to make someone else’s artwork I almost always manage to find the artist’s contact info and tell them, “You should ask (insert artist here) what they’re charging for the original work, thanks.”