January 13, 2017

Photo Essay: Night of the Living Neon

There's always this struggle between art and commerce—a conflict nearly as old as Man versus Man and Man versus Nature.

If you love to create, you have to find a way to support yourself either by selling those creations or doing something else for money.

I love to write, but I can't live off poetry and photo essays. So, I've rented my writing skills out to proofread books that other people have written about estate planning, dentistry, fatherhood, religions, and so on.  I've edited tomes on diabetes and arthritis. I've written press releases about music I don't listen to.

I prefer taking money to do work-for-hire writing (or fixing someone else's writing) over forsaking my preferred art form and doing something else that sucks my soul.

If you're lucky, you get hired to do things your way, in your style, so that you can be proud of the end result—even if it's not exactly your thing.

Fortunately for neon artist Lisa Schulte, there's still a commercial demand for neon signs—even if it has waned since its heyday.

There are still Hollywood productions that need them...

...and pop stars who want to be photographed in front of them.

It's not that the neon signs aren't art...

...or that they don't have artistic value...

...because they most certainly do.

But when you're an artist, sometimes "selling" becomes synonymous with "selling out."

Schulte actually got into glass-blowing and -bending as not so much of a neon aficionado, but merely as a light junkie.

So, she taught herself neon, but also backlit plastic and incandescent bulb signs—all of which tend to fall under the same category of signage and commercial archaeology.

For over 35 years, Schulte has amassed a gigantic collection of her work...

...which can be seen in the 15,000-foot showroom of her company, Nights of Neon.

Pretty much everything there is for rent or for sale...

...although the collection feels pretty perfect, just the way it is—which is why it's not surprising that the company rents out the space, too.

Not everything at Nights of Neon is for show—because there are several works-in-progress... various stages of completion.

Pretty much everything in the custom fabrication process is in-house, including the sketches...

...the glass tubes in various colors (that range from "Bromo Blue" to gold, green, red, pink, and white)...

......the noble gasses...

...and the electronics (and electricity).

But Schulte has got something else at Nights of Neon, too: her own art studio, for her own art.

It was only in 2010 that she started focusing more on exhibiting in galleries and museums rather than in movies and music videos...

...and what she's created so far is an interesting mix of what you'd expect with the commercial stuff (like words and letters, which have been jumbled up in her "Broken Promises" piece)...

...and what's a surprising representation of Art versus Nature.

Schulte salvages fronds from a queen palm tree, as well as other pieces of sturdy wood, and painstakingly wraps them in glowing glass tubing—without strangling them too tightly or burning them.

Schulte has earned the nickname "Neon Queen," but that's something of a misnomer.

After all, most queens don't actually do very much.

Obviously, she's also an entrepreneur, managing to stay in business since the 1980s. But she's also a collaborator, creating works with street artists (and building her "Warrior Army").

But none of that really detracts from the work that she and her team does at Nights of Neon—because when you see it, it's really spectacular.

It's not a shrine to a dead art form—or a "boneyard" of cast-offs—because pieces are constantly moving in and out. Some new ones get added, while others are sold off.

It's a living thing.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Behold, the Museum of Neon Art
Photo Essay: Hats Off to the Museum of Neon Art
Photo Essay: The Treasures of an LA Tourist Trap, Universal Studios

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