Shawna Peterson is a veteran bender. She's been a women in the trade longer than many of us. She almost couldn't participate in the She Bends show, but I am oh, SO happy that she found a way! We couldn't have done it without her - she fixed a lot of glass and kicked ass at install. And of course, it wouldn't be the same show without someone with her expertise and perspective. A totally unrelated fun-fact side note is that she's been on Mythbusters which I think is just so cool. Shawna is also based in the Bay Area and I feel grateful to have her as a resource/teacher/colleague right in my backyard.
I find Shawna very interesting and engaging in the sense that we tend to have philosophical conversations about our industry; Shawna and I delve into less technical concepts and touch on neon in the art-world, signage vs. art, the concepts the medium lends to the work and the Internet's influence on neon and the art-world in general. One of the topics Shawna and I go back and forth on is the concept of artists using neon in their work without bending it themselves.
Now, Shawna's viewpoint is a bit more liberal, as you will see, while I'm on the fence about it. While I know that it's alot to expect everyone who wants to use neon in their work to have access to it or to set it up for themselves, the hands-on materialist in me has a biased opinion because I'm very personally attached to my materials and process and how they lend themselves to the finished work conceptually and authentically. Shawna is always able to soften my outlook on it. I am passionate and engaged in our on-going conversations and appreciate when she challenges me on my viewpoints. I can certainly benefit from the perspective of someone like me (a fine artist and a trades-person) that has many more years of experience to share.
This interview with Shawna will serve as a "part one" of a larger discussion I will be bringing to the blog. While we work out our schedules, we managed to edit down a larger discussion into what we have below in order to introduce the topics we usually discuss and set the stage for future discussions. Unlike my previous interviews, Shawna and I discuss broader concepts about the use of neon in today's art-world and whether it's used wisely, if the industry is benefiting from its popularity on social media, and most importantly we try and decide whether we (or anyone) has the right to judge someone else's work. Please leave any comments or questions below so perhaps we can include them in future discussions. Make sure to check out the 99% Invisible Podcast episode that discusses neon in Oakland (our town) featuring insights by Shawna.
MP: I don't think I've ever asked you, who taught you how to bend and when was your first time? What were your first impressions or feelings about being in the fires that first time?
SP: I was taught by the neon bender R.J. Wells in Southern California. We both worked at a small neon company called "Illuminations" in Long Beach (retail shop) and Signal Hill (warehouse). I worked there for almost 2 years before I started my apprenticeship with him. I was going to school full time, working at least 30 hours per week and then my boss Wendy asked me to learn tube-bending. I had already learned how to pump- R.J worked nights for us 3 times a week and I would pump his work during the day. He was an electrical engineer during the day full time so he could only work nights and/or weekends. I was a reluctant tube-bending apprentice simply because I was tapped out time-wise. Being an apprentice meant staying nights for 1-2 hours with R.J (when was I going to study was my big concern) and then practicing when it was slow during the day. It was a daunting prospect. I struggled with the learning process- it seemed like it took forever and I would complain to R.J that I wasn't any good. Hi finally sat me down one day and told me I was learning 5 times faster than he did so to "give myself a break." After that I guess I relaxed my attitude about it and it started to gel.
When I did get into a groove for a few hours practicing, it was like time "disappeared". Hours would fly by and I wouldn't even notice it. I also really enjoyed the mental challenges of tackling a pattern for the first time. Since I was studying cognitive psychology and how the brain learns, it was a natural fit for me in many ways- it was a physical form of everything I loved to study about.
MP: You mentioned earlier when you started your shop in the Bay Area. Can you tell me about this journey towards having your own business and set up? What were some challenges? How did you get your equipment etc. Also, how long have you been in business.
SP: I learned to bend neon in 1987 and I started my own shop in 1998. I had been working as a full-time bender for a National sign company called Federal Sign. Our branch was in Dublin and we had a whole office setup- 3 full time art department guys, 5 full time salesmen, other office folks, plastic, neon, metal, and paint departments. We also had big crane trucks for install as well as smaller service trucks. So while we weren't bending 5 sets of "Payless Shoe Source" letters we were doing repairs for service accounts. Anyway- Dublin was expensive labor wise and they decided to close our branch down and shuttle all equipment to other cities. The neon shop equipment had no place to go because they already had neon shops at the other branches. I negotiated a purchase of the equipment as part of staying and helping close down everything. It was a depressing job to see the entire shop eventually empty out, but I had my sights on the end goal of getting the equipment. I put everything in storage for 18 months and was a freelance bender for 3-4 different shops around the Bay Area. I wanted to save up some money before starting my own shop. I started out sharing a shop with one of the guys from the Federal metal department- not sharing a business, just space. It was in Oakland on Linden Street. I did only wholesale work for years, not ever having to deal with retail customers. I got burnt out doing just that and went to work for a friend's shop full time-doing some bending and some project managing/shop managing. It didn't work out and I opened up my shop again. This time I decided I was going to carve out time for myself and create art- not just neon signs, but art.
MP: How was it being a women in the trade when you got started? Any different than now? More challenging or not challenging at all?
SP: Being a woman in the trades was challenging. I was the only woman in the back side of the building-meaning the manufacturing side. There was the overall sense of taking a man's "spot", like I shouldn't be there at all, but once they saw my work, that kind of dissipated with most of the guys. There were some (perhaps more than I realized) that still did shitty things like leave pages from porn magazines for me to find or make rude gestures as I walked by. I usually tried to handle those incidents directly with a negative comment, but in hindsight maybe I should have let the management know. It escalated into a bigger thing that a salesman (an older man who was a friend) witnessed and then it blew up around the shop. There were several men in the shop that had my back and I did feel supported as much as there was shitty behavior. As far as now goes- I had many sign company clients who I thought were okay guys. Once I was told that a guy would make disparaging comments about me behind my back, which really deflated me.
I think I had the unique experience of being queer and knowing who I was at an early age. I never once batted my eyelashes at a guy for anything, ever. I would witness my female co-workers (office and shop) put that behavior on like they would a glove and then turn back into the strong, confident women they were when the guys left. I never understood that behavior then and I still don't now.
The other frustrating part about being a woman and owning your own business is how some men will just try to talk over you. In my head I'm like "Look. You came to me for information- it has been established that I am the expert here- why don't you f'ing shut up and listen..." which is not always the best attitude when working with a new client. There are times though that you have to cut people like that loose and be done. It is sometimes a tough choice and I do feel lucky to be in the Bay Area where there are more and more women on construction sites than I have seen anywhere else.
MP:: We talked a bit earlier about the obscure line between neon as signage and neon as art. When does it become art and not a sign? In your opinion? Are we artists or tradespeople? I've had a bit of an identity crises over the last couple of years surrounding this question.
SP: I definitely feel that there is a clear line between the neon trade and neon as art. I am not an artist simply because I can bend neon. I was a trades-person until I decided to start making neon art-then I was an artist. Neon signs that say "HAIR NAILS" I make for a beauty salon is not art. Art has to be made with intent- signage lacks that in my opinion. I mean how screwed up would it be for me to take neon I make for a beauty salon and without any changes say "this is my art" and try to show that to a gallery. I guess the f-you would be the intent there, so maybe that in and of itself would still be art. Again if the intent is there, art is there. But then we can discuss whether neon art like that is "good" art which is a whole other discussion. If I see neon signs being passed off like that, I would be doing a serious eye roll internally-art is subjective and for me that is a lazy artist.
MP: In your point of view, how should neon used in a fine art context contribute to the concept of the work? Do you feel there there times where neon is used in work where it doesn't make sense?
SP: Yes, I think neon can be abused in the fine art world. It is sometimes used as an afterthought. But, I think it goes back to the subjective question- sometimes I have a strong reaction to neon in sculpture and other times I am more like "who am I to judge their work?"
MP: With neon being as ubiquitous as it is and now as trendy as it is, why after all this time do you think many people still know so little about it?
SP: I think that our predominant culture is a visual one and that all of the neon photos on Pinterest that don't show any wire or transformers is how people think of neon. They are also less likely to follow a path of curiosity to read about how neon is made if it isn't explained to them in 140 characters. Yes, that is a jab at our internet/social media culture. ***this is where I turn to the viewer and say in a public service announcement manner- "put down your phones an have a real conversation or read a book". The overall answer to your question is that our popular culture has made people lazy. People can find out how neon is made if they look hard enough and I guess we as makers can contribute to that education.
MP: You make work for many artists. I know we have differing viewpoints and continuing conversations about the topic of artists who use neon not bending themselves. Can you explain your previous viewpoint and how it changed over time? My challenge to you is - how is a fine artist not making their own neon components (in the case of neon being the entirety of the work) different from a painter not painting their own painting?
SP: I guess I like to think that there is a lot of "process" from the artist in their intent (there is that word again) that is perhaps more emotional or a mental exercise than a physical one. I personally like to have a hand in creating all aspects of my work- because I have the skill and a shop where I can. If I didn't have those things, does that mean I should not create any art? Should neon art only be created by journeyman tube-benders? I think not. Sometimes a young artist full of heart and inspiration walks into my shop and orders neon from me for their work. I don't feel qualified or superior enough to tell them- "you shouldn't be doing this." Like a lot of artists they feel compelled to make the work as part of a next step for them- who am I to judge whether or not they should be doing that? No artist or art critic has the answers to what makes art for each artist- only the artist can answer that question.
When I was in my twenties learning tube-bending I really thought that all neon artists should make their own work. I looked down on those who didn't and resented their success. Now I see that view as short-sighted. When one neon artist is successful, we all are. I guess my early viewpoint came from the struggle of learning neon and how hard it is. I saw those that did not even try to bend their own work as taking the easy way out- a shortcut. Now I view it as a skill set that not all will tackle or to be perfectly frank, be good at. We can also go back to the topic of green neon benders making work that is not technically that great- should they NOT make work at all? No, they should still make their art. I like to think that while they are making art that is still a work in progress from a technical stand point that they continue to perfect their craft with learning to bend larger diameter tubes, for instance. I like to think that bending only small tubing is not the end game for a lot of neon artists and that they respect the craft to continue their training.
To go back to your painter/painting reference, it is a difficult question. I guess there are painters, but there is no such thing as people who use painting in their art. With neon, there are neon artists and there are artists who use neon in their art. Conceptual artists often incorporate multiple media in their work-metal, neon, bronze, clay, paint. They are not always proficient in each and so they employ someone to fabricate that for them. Sort of like Chihuly directing a gaffer for his work. Does this de-value the work? It is a question I often relate to in this way: It is like the devil on one shoulder says "who the f--- do they think they are? We work hard for this!" and the angel on the other shoulder says "who the f---do you think YOU are to know what is best for that artist"? Intent is really important, but unfortunately we as observers don't always know what that intent is.
Maybe an artist does other work and they want to add neon to part of the show- I respect that. People that use neon by itself and then put their name on it- I guess I have a harder time with. Angel and the Devil all over again...