Partying with liquid fire

Reno neon artists show electric works, host a dance party

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Kaelyn McGowen with one of her pieces in the neon art show at the Potentialist Workshop in Reno.

Eighty years ago, when Las Vegas was just a wide spot on a dusty road, Reno was the state’s gambling Mecca, an oasis of gaming, glitz and neon at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

Corporate hotel-casinos have taken the place of the family-owned gambling joints, and digital LED signs now dominate the nightscape. But the neon tradition continues with a small cadre of local artists who create sculptures of glass and light.

Those neon artists are showing and selling some of their creations at the Potentialist Workshop, 836 E. Second St., a multidisciplinary, collaborative arts collective. The exhibition runs Aug. 9-14 , with a dance party on Saturday, Aug, 14, 7 p.m. to “late.” The soiree features neon creations, fine art, live music, dancing and food. The neon pieces are the work of Ken Hines, Berg Glass, Jeff Johnson and Kaelyn McGowen. Some of those artists also collaborated with Michael Bridges, Joe C. Rock and Hayley Hagman to add neon accents to their paintings.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Katelyn McGowen’s artwork, also shown in the photo at the top of this story, excited by electric current.

The tube-benders’ art

Kaelyn McGowen took a neon fabrication class in Seattle, Wash., in 2019 while she was in graduate school, earning a master’s degree in arts leadership and management. A non-profit group offered the classes in making neon art and McGowen, a painter, signed up. “I got to take one of their first couple classes,” she said. “I was just in the right place at the right time. Then I came home when the pandemic hit and brought that training back with me.”

 She set up a shop in her garage and learned more techniques from Ken Hines, who has 40 years experience in creating neon signs and art in Northern Nevada, and owns The Color of Neon. McGowen also learned from Jeff Johnson, who previously worked with Hines, and now has his own shop. “I hung out with them whenever they would let me,” she said. “Now they couldn’t get rid of me if they tried.”

High heat, high energy

McGowen’s business is Neon Art and Design in Reno.

The glowing art is produced from thin air. Neon, argon and other gases are extracted from the atmosphere, trapped in glass tubes, and then zapped with a high-voltage current. The gas gets excited and luminous colors pierce the darkness.

The hollow tubes used to make the neon lamps come in 4, 5 and 8-foot lengths. To shape the tubes, the glass is heated by gas torches and subjected to forced air. The artists melt and re-form the tubes, bending the glass into the shapes they need for their projects.

Alchemy of the elements

“It’s very similar to glass-blowing in that when you are heating the glass it loses that tube-like quality, so you have to force air through it — blow into the tube —  to make sure it stays hollow,” McGowen said. “Then once the glass is in the shape you want, it is connected to a bombarding system, also called a manifold, which sends high-voltage electricity through the tube, which is in a vacuum.”

The electrical current “is vacuuming out the impurities, because the inside of the tube needs to be a purified vacuum in order for the gasses to be introduced to it,” she said. “And then the noble gas is put into the tubes.” She uses neon and argon, but krypton, xenon, helium and radon may also be employed in lamps.

Glass plus gas equals colors

Those are the six “noble gasses,” so called because they don’t form chemical compounds or react with any other elements. In other words, the hoity-toity noble gasses are so majestic they don’t mingle with the riffraff.

The color of a piece is determined by the color of the gas plus the color of the glass. Argon, when excited by an electrical current, glows with a blue light.  Neon glows orange-red. “So if you have blue glass and introduce red neon, you get pink,” McGowen said. When purified, filled and sealed, the tubes are attached to a transformer and the colorful lamps are complete.

Artist Ken Hines, Northern Nevada’s last full-time neon tube bender, has created neon signage all over the Reno skyline for 40 years. “In 1990 I had five employees bending neon and there were a couple of other neon shops in town,” he said. “Then the LEDs came in.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Ken Hines installs a neon plane at the Potentialist Workshop. Pieces from his “Noble Knots” series are in the background. The designs look simple, but it takes a lot of skill to bend and intertwine the glass tubes into the rope-like creations.

LEDs take over

The new technology allowed businesses to buy LEDs off the shelf, peel off the adhesive backings and affix the tiny lamps to signs. The neon industry dwindled, but the craftsmanship – and art – goes on. Hines still builds new signs and repairs existing ones, but also has expanded his scope to make artworks, often with found objects as a background.

The Potentialist Workshop show features his series of “Noble Knots,” neon tubes bent into knots on weathered, corrugated steel panels that he found in the desert. Another of his pieces employs a steel barrel head as a base for radiating tubes that flash in five different patterns. Each tube contains one of the six noble gasses and glow in different colors.

The mad scientists

Jeff Johnson, whose art also is featured in the show, worked for the railroad in Winnemucca before coming to Reno in 1994 and learning to create neon signs. He started by doing high-voltage work for Hines, then mastered the tube-bending techniques. On his website, NeonArtNv, he describes working in the medium as “two-thirds artistic and one-third mad scientist.”

Berg Glass in front of one of his pieces in the show.

Berg Glass, aka A.J. Berg, has been working with Hines at the Color of Neon and also has his own shop. His work in the show includes a small surf board, “Private Beach,” and a neon depiction of a cannabis plant sprouting from the soil.

All the pieces in the exhibition are offered for sale. Hines’ “Noble Knots,” for example, are priced at $300. Other pieces are tagged at $500 or more.

“They aren’t just decorative,” Johnson said. “Neon throws off more light than you might think. They make good nightlights or can light a dark hallway.”

And they come with a dash of nostalgia that harkens back to the days when Reno ruled the state’s gaming empire, and neon fire lit the canyons of the Biggest Little City.

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