Updated: Aug 26, 2020
In an interview with Emery from Scotland's only neon workshop, Solas Neon Inc. we explore the blurred lines between advertising and art-making.
By Caroline Robinson.
It seems as though neon signs are very ‘in’ these days, maybe it’s the jarring bright colours grabbing our short attention spans? Or maybe it’s the fact that they make us nostalgic for those dreamy 80s movies where everything feels good in the end. Either way, neon (and art that uses neon as a medium) is nothing new in the art world, with artists like Bruce Nauman experimenting with text in the 60s.
Bruce Nauman (b. 1941), The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967, neon. (Source)
Where is the cut-off between ‘fine art’ and ‘sign in a bar’? (Does there have to be one?) Does the use of neon in the realm of 'fine art' automatically turn it into a uniquely artistic medium? Where do you even get neon from nowadays? On the 20th of April 2020, Emery [LAST NAME] from Solas Neon and Caroline from The Edinburgh University History of Art Society met (via Zoom) to chat about Emery’s work, neon's place in art, and how he would spread neon across society if he ruled the world.
Emery showing off a vintage sign in his studio, reading 'Players'. (Image by Fiona Gray)
We decided to kick things off by asking the age-old question:
Why? More specifically, why neon?
Emery: I studied graphic design for my degree and have always been in that design realm of thinking anyway. When I left Uni I was managing an American themed diner bar in the city centre and was obsessed with getting neon lights for the place. I don’t know why I just thought they looked really interesting. They were really hard to get a hold of though, they were expensive and we had quite a few that were broken, so I started looking into them more hoping I could maybe fix them.
Then in 2016, I went to New York for a friend’s wedding and the place was covered in neon signs. We drank in so many bars with original funky vintage neon signs, and I loved how even though they were commercial signage they had an artistic quality to them. Also, the graphics and fonts around them are just iconic. I came back from the States determined to learn how to do this. I was put in touch with Richard Wheater in Wakefield who ran a day workshop and taught me the basics. And then I came back, got a garage, spent £500 on some equipment and started practising and making signs in this wee garage in the new town. After about a year I got a job as a designer at a signage company who bought a lot of their neon pre-made so that meant I got to see the fabrication side of things. After a while, I left that job and started doing my own thing and now here we are.
When I first said I was doing this (becoming a neon artist), people said I was crazy and I’d be so stressed but it really wasn’t that stressful. I feel really lucky as we have a niche product so it was easy to maintain and keep things going which was cool. I know people say this, and I hate when people say this because it sounds like bullshit but it’s true, and I started with nothing but we literally had nothing. Like a student overdraft, like seriously it was really scary but at the time I was like ‘let’s do it’ and it turned out fine.
'I started with nothing, but we literally had nothing. Like a student overdraft, like seriously it was really scary but at the time I was like ‘let’s do it’ and it turned out fine.'
Solas Neon is the only dedicated neon workshop in Scotland, we asked Emery, 'What it was like to start such a unique business?'
Emery: One of the most important things in my journey was meeting Sandy. He’s an old-timer, in his 50s, and he’s an old school neon glass bender. He was based in Stirling and was off the grid big time. He was doing odd signage jobs and had all the neon processing equipment which was really important. We got linked up through a friend and really hit it off. We shared the workshop together because he brought in a lot of his equipment. That’s a key thing about neon, a lot of the equipment you absolutely need just isn’t made anymore. A lot of our stuff is over 30 or 40 years old. He needed me because he was about to give up the neon game but I convinced him to get on board and work with me, so he taught me a lot as well. A lot of my skills come from him, and because everything takes so long it’s good to have him there for support on jobs too. He’s actually a really good friend of mine which is strange because he’s the total opposite of me but we get on like a house on fire. He’s awesome. He’s been doing neon for over 35 years. He’s done it for everyone, but he’s really modest so he wouldn’t tell you this himself.
Inprogress neons being finished in Emery's workshop. (Image by Fiona Gray)
You mentioned that it was nearly impossible to get neon fabrication equipment in this day in age?
Emery: Yeah, we have loads of old complex equipment, we have a big transformer that you need to process a finished tube and I kid you not it’s from like the 60s. Nowadays you can buy these things new but they’re meant for different applications. You’re buying equipment that isn’t meant to be used for neon processing and then you modify it to suit your needs. Our equipment breaks constantly and we always need to repair it.
After LEDs came along and became more cost-effective most of the neon processing equipment didn’t need to be made anymore. Most of Sandy’s equipment is priceless because it’s so hard to find. I think LED serves its purpose and it is really good, but it just doesn’t have the same qualities as neon.
And then, Emery graced us with potentially the best quote we could ever hope to get from any interview ever.
'Glass neon is alive, it’s a three-dimensional living thing, you can touch it you can feel it you can smell it.'
It’s literally alive and especially for someone like me or Sandy who make these things and goes through this journey of creating things. It’s a journey and you go through a story when you’re making something. You start with these rod tubes and you turn on all the torches and you heat them up and you burn yourself a million times and you break something else. Or you put it on the table and it just shatters to pieces. And then you finish it and you turn it on for the first time and life comes to it.
Soon to be finished Thai food sign (neon tubes in metal boxes) on Emery's desk. (Image by Fiona Gray)
You also do neon repair work. Have you encountered any issues with repairing other artist's work?
Emery: I LOVE fixing neon’s! Unlike LED you can actually repair a neon sign instead of just throwing it away. There is very rarely anything seriously wrong with the neon signs we repair, its normally the electronic parts that have deteriorated and need to be replaced. I love doing it, especially with Sandy, because he’s been doing it for like 400 years and back in the day there were only 8 or 10 glass benders in Scotland in the 1960s and then 20 years ago there were only 3 or 4. So when we get signs in he can look at them and say ‘oh that’s old Bruce’s job, Bruce used to do that with his rods’ and we can know who made the sign from however many years ago. There’s a very niche history of glass bending in Scotland - very interesting though.
How do you feel about contemporary artists using neon in their work?
Emery: It’s terrific that people are using neon as the dynamic medium that it is, however, there is a disconnect. I can look at a really impressive neon sign by a well-known artist and say ‘there’s no way you made that,’ as it can take more than 20 years of experience to make something that complex and large. We do work with artists all the time, but the recognition from our point of view is slim to none. It’s a bit of a sore spot as there should be more collaboration ideally. Sandy has actually done a few massive pieces for very famous artists. I don’t hold too much bitterness towards those artists, we’re more like technicians.
You've used the phrase neonisation. How we can apply this to the future of art?
Emery: I think if we were going to use neon in art as a medium we would have to look to how Poland used it in the 60s and 70s. In Warsaw a lot of the neon they did was controlled by the government to where it was and what it was going to say. Because of this, they have some really fantastic pieces in public spaces. I think we can also look to times like the American 30s and the mid-century signs from Las Vegas. The skill and artistry put in was taken for granted back then, but is really appreciated and in demand nowadays.
Almost done signs in Emery's studio. See the segments of tube painted black to create the illusion of separated letters. This is one of the last steps in fabrication. (Image by Fiona Gray)
So, if you ruled the world, what place would neon have in our society?
Emery: We’d all be living in like 1970s style Warsaw. I did a workshop before and an art teacher from a school came and said how she wished she could introduce this to kids in her class. I lacked the high-level teaching required for neon work when I first started and had to teach myself. If I had my way I would make it so that kids could play with making neon and see where it took them. Creating stuff and artistry, in general, is not really accessible to everyone.
'I see so much talent but they don’t know where to put it.
If I ruled the world I would definitely put funding into more specialised and in-depth art teaching, along with millions of neon signs everywhere.'
Emery in his Edinburgh studio. (Source)
Note: this interview was conducted in April of 2020 and any views or opinions expressed do not reflect the official opinions of the University of Edinburgh History of Art Society.
Interview and text by Caroline Robinson.