Vol. 10: Lady Bends the Tubes

See inside Shawna Peterson's neon workshop.



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Shawna Peterson was in the middle of completing a degree in psychology when she landed a part-time job "babysitting the store" at a neon shop to help pay her way through school. After two years, she started an old-fashioned apprenticeship with the tube bender after work, mastering each step before she was allowed to proceed to the next. "Even after five years, you're still a journeyman," she says matter-of-factly. 20 years later, she's a master glass bender who divides her time between creating commercial neon for businesses, teaching neon bending at her workshop in Emeryville, Calif., and making neon artwork, whether commissioned or her own. Does her background studying cognition help? "Bending a neon pattern is like working a mental puzzle, every time," she says. "You need to plan it out, carefully and creatively."

Her workshop is packed with her own work and the tools, both high-tech and humble, of her trade. She admits that her favorite tool is a charred wood block that she's been using for the last 15 years to cool freshly bent glass, but her cross-fires for bending the glass tubing are pretty impressive as well. While glass-bending technology hasn't changed much since the early days, she's the possessor of a modern, greaseless o-ring vacuum manifold for emptying oxygen and other impurities from the bent tubes and then pumping in neon and argon. Once the tubes are sealed and wired to the transformer, it's time to let there be light. After all, "there's nothing more satisfying than building something from scratch and then lighting it up."

See Shawna's Peterson's website for more information about classes and exhibitions.

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--Arwen O'Reilly

AO'R: So, how did you get into neon?
SP: Well, when I was in college, I needed a part-time job to help pay my way through school. A friend of a friend had a neon shop, so I worked there for two years babysitting the store, fabricating, design. Two years of doing everything but neon!

AO'R: Who was your teacher? How did you learn?
SP: I apprenticed with the tube bender (RJ Wells) after work. He learned when he was 15 years old, just hanging out, and the crotchety old guy running the shop tried to get him to go away, but eventually he learned neon. (His story is way more interesting than mine.) During the day, I could practice when it was slow at work. The first sign that I produced was after a year, but we had pretty high quality standards so ... I would say that it was a couple years before I was producing solidly consistent work.

AO'R: What's your background?
SP: I was studying cognition and memory and research psychology: how the brain processes memories, how we learn things. I went to grad school for a year studying the same thing, but I had to choose between neon and being a long-time student, and I always missed working with my hands. I asked myself, "Do I want to be a poor student or make a living doing something I love?"

AO'R: Does your background in psychology relate at all to neon?
SP: It's very logical; the glass has limits. There's no talking the glass into doing something, which is probably why I like it. I never wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I liked to study and perform research, and neon is still very challenging mentally. Part of what makes neon so interesting is that there is a mental component to every neon sign. Bending a neon pattern is like working a mental puzzle, every time. You need to visualize how you are going to turn a 4-foot stick of glass into whatever lies in reverse in front of you – all neon patterns are drawn backwards so the front surface is flat. You cannot simply start at one end of your pattern and keep going until you finish. You will end up bending into your previous work, so you need to plan it out, carefully and creatively, every time. So, I need to mentally imagine what I will be doing in the fires.

AO'R: What draws you to neon?
SP: I love working with my hands. As a kid, I used to take things apart all the time: cameras, phones, clocks. I was fascinated by what things look like on the inside and how things work. Building a piece from start to finish, including the wiring and the transformer: I actually enjoy that part. There's nothing more satisfying than building something from scratch and then lighting it up. It's a basic human thing.

AO'R: How much of the work you do is commercial and how much is artistic (whether a commission or your own work)?
SP: I would say that 75% of my work is strictly commercial, 20% is my own artwork or neon for other artists, and 5% is teaching neon classes. I would love to increase the time I spend doing artwork. When I am working on my own stuff, hours fly by, and I don't even notice. I love a new challenge in neon, and teaching classes definitely offers that. I also enjoy teaching students, and watching their skills develop. I've always wanted to pass on my trade.

AO'R: What's your favorite thing to do with neon?
SP: My favorite thing now is my own artwork. It's my 20th year bending glass and at some point I decided that to not burn out I'd have to make my own stuff. When I'm doing my own work, thinking about it, making it, the hours just fly by. That and working for other artists. I would love to do more work for artists. The alphabet is killing me at this point! So now I kill the alphabet in my artwork.

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AO'R: What's the weirdest/coolest thing you've ever been commissioned to do?

SP: The neon armchair. It's for an artist named Dave Johnson [Editor's Note: The chair is currently in Dave Johnson's solo show, "Loiter," at the Little Tree Gallery in San Francisco, Calif.]. It's going to be one of the most challenging things I've made: full size, free-standing, a lot of detail. he provided a sketch and I drew over the top of it. He provides some of the curves, but I generally have to recreate everything from scratch, either freehand or with a combo of pattern work and freehand. He has bent neon before (he worked in a neon shop), so he has a general idea of what it will probably look like. The fun part is the planning and the final execution. This project is a prime example of building something from start to finish. There is nothing more satisfying.

AO'R: When you work with artists, do they credit you? How is that relationship?
SP: They generally don't credit me. One of the original founders of the Museum of Neon Art, Lili Lakich, has a fabricator that works with her. In one of her shows she had a photo of him working on one of her pieces and gave him credit. For my own artwork, I do enjoy the fact that it is made by me from start to finish. For me personally, that is important.

AO'R: Does it bother you that you aren't always credited?
SP: I don't have an opinion about it. It's their gig, I'm not invested in it. I think with neon that's pretty typical. When I was younger I had a stronger opinion about it, being around a lot of neon artists who didn't do their own work. But now ... I've never actually studied art, so someone could point a finger at me and say "you've never studied art." I feel like the 20 years I've spent in my trade is my training. My friends probably have stronger opinions about it than I do. I have a similar thing with my classes: sometimes students get ambitious with their projects and I'll have to weld on the electrodes at the end. I really, really try to have them do almost everything.

AO'R: Is that different from your training period?
SP: When I was learning, they wouldn't let me move on until I'd mastered something. It's a commitment.

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AO'R: What tool do you use most often?
SP:It's a cooling block, a wood block that's been charred completely all the way around. I use all of it. It's 15 years old. I've thought about varnishing it and putting it on my desk, but I use it! All the blocks [I use] I made at the same time. One of them broke for the first time last week.

AO'R: Why do you think people still use neon?
SP: Like watching a fire burn in the fireplace is really calming and soothing, I think that neon is unique in the same way. People are drawn to it. Plus it's got a lot of color and it's made out of glass. LEDs can achieve some of the lighting, but it's more mechanical and cold. People have been saying that neon is going to die out. I honestly don't think it will ever go away.

AO'R: So how have things changed since you first started bending neon?
SP: The processing system is called vacuum-pumping and bombarding. When I first started, we used the old glass and grease stopcocks like you would have had in chemistry class. Everything has gone to greaseless o-ring vacuum manifolds. The bending has stayed the same.

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