December 14, 2015

Photo Essay: Illuminating the Art of Neon

I think I spent most of my Saturdays in New York City hungover in bed. For many of the years I lived there, I rarely explored the city during the day.

Now that I'm an Angeleno, I'm proud to say that I pretty much never stop exploring. And I've been lucky enough to meet some fellow adventurers who are up for anything, and some artists who don't mind if I invite myself over.

I feel so fortunate to have found neon artist Michael Flechtner, who's been making neon sculptures (and, occasionally, signs) for the greater part of thirty years—mostly in his relatively small industrial space near the Van Nuys Airport.

He's pretty much a one-man show, so he doesn't need that much room, but Michael also gives lessons to students—and both fabricates and stores his works of art here.

Fortunately, there are enough gallery shows and other exhibitions at any given time to spread his collection out a bit, leaving room for many of his pieces to hang illuminated from the walls at his workspace.

Michael is one of the few neon artists using his craft to create 3D sculptures—be they planes, sharks, cameras...

...or a walking dog.

And this Saturday, I got to witness something that was more than worth getting out of bed for:

...own neon sculpture being born. (AO for "Atlas Obscura.")

Neon has the caché of being a somewhat dangerous art form...

...with high temperatures... tubes that appear to "melt"...

...and are lined with phosphorus.

It doesn't take much to break the surface tension of the glass to make a piece snap off...

...and you could accidentally flatten out a bend or blow a bubble where you don't want one.

Sure, there are happy accidents...

...but when you're dealing with contents under pressure.... don't want to mess up.

After the glass is bent, all the air has to be sucked out of it, making sure that the inside of it isn't contaminated with anything.

Then you can work with your noble gasses—and maybe a bit of mercury—to create the desired color palette.

In this case, when the luminous tubes are first illuminated (which requires a power source in the form of a transformer), they start off orange...

...and then change to blue and yellow as they heat up.

Michael teaches a six-week course...

...but if you really want to learn neon...'s a commitment of much longer than six weeks.

It would probably take you at least a couple of years to get the hand-eye coordination down...

...but no classes can teach you inspiration.

Michael is a humorist and a linguist in the body of a sculptor. Many of his pieces are plays on words—and what they're called is just as important as what they look like.

You either have something to say, or you don't. After that, it's just a matter of whether or not you choose to express it through neon.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Fine Art of Neon
Photo Essay: The Neon of LA, and Its One Darkened Dragon

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