Beyond Signage: Exploring Neon As Art

May 3, 2019

While neon once brought to mind retro advertising for seedy adult businesses and dive bars, it is now often seen as art. Holly Hutchings talks to one artist who has been making the colorful craft for decades.

Jeff Johnson calls himself the Minister of Inert Gases. He even has homemade business cards clad with the state seal to jokingly verify his moniker. As an artist who works in neon, you can do that.

Touring An Outdoor Neon Exhibition

Recently, Johnson walked me through his backyard. It’s like an outdoor exhibition of his work, with the Mizpah Hotel sign, a seductive neon woman, vibrant towers and more. But his backyard isn’t the only place he does this.

Jeff Johnson stands in his backyard workshop where he makes and repairs neon. He's made small signs that hang in Bruka Theater as well as huge installations, like blue stars on Peavine Peak in Reno.
Credit Holly Hutchings

“I started what I call neon lawn art, so it's neon mixed into the landscape," he said. "Sometimes I've been able to set up neon on the side of [a] hill or a little mountain where you can see the neon from far away, and it's just a temporary thing. On Memorial Day, I created a blue star flag on the "N" up above UNR to celebrate the Blue Star Families and our veterans.”

Next, we go into his work shed. The walls are covered with drawings, once-lit beer signs and even a former bright Hello Kitty. The ceiling is lined with snake-like neon that slithers across the whole of it. He shows me how it comes to life with one zap of an electrical charge.

There aren’t a ton of neon artists like Johnson. He works in more traditional art forms, like watercolors, too, but he saves some of his wildest creations for the flickering lights of the neon tubes he bends. He’s always looking for a new way to showcase the neon, rather than to simply lure people in to buy something. He makes the unexpected, from a neon fetus to a functioning marionette that can gently dance with its neon parts.

Johnson took an old Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper stand and lit it up with both bullet holes and neon to make this creation.
Credit Holly Hutchings

One of his current works is a piano that he designed as part of The Piano Project with Carpenter’s Music World. Basically, twelve artists went to town to make one their own as part of a charity auction.

The piano that Johnson added his artistic flair to is now on display at Junkee Clothing Exchange in Reno.
Credit Holly Hutchings

“Mine's the one, ‘This machine kills fascists,’ he said. "It's dedicated to Woody Guthrie. I just put neon inside it, so it glows out the holes. I took the front parts up on the other side of Peavine and pumped them full of lead, so light shines out the bullet holes.”

Before The Piano, There Were The Fish

In 2001, Johnson crafted twenty cutthroat trout that glowed in multicolored neon, then installed them in the waters of the Truckee River in downtown Reno. You heard that right. There were electrically-charged fish underwater for weeks.

“I had to, like, go out there in the freezing cold in the middle of July and set them up in the afternoon and take them down at night," he said. "I had to do it several times during the month. And it was a lot of work. I was the neon fish guy for ten years. ‘Oh! You're the neon fish guy!’ "

As one can imagine, putting a high voltage, super delicate sculpture in a roaring river, it was tough.

“That first day when it didn’t work, I knew how Evel Knievel felt at the bottom of the Snake River," he said. "I worked real hard but still came up short, but then the next time I got it functioning the way it was supposed to [to] begin with. I thought it was great.”

Where Does Neon Fit In Northern Nevada's Art Scene?

The amount of dwindling money-making work is frustrating, but leaders in the arts community say pieces like his add to the overall picture of Northern Nevada art.

“There are plenty of extraordinary artworks that are considered pieces of fine art that are made from reclaimed materials, from garbage, from canvas, from fiber, from mixed media," said Amanda Horn, spokesperson for the Nevada Museum of Art. "And I think it's not fair to cast a broad net over any particular medium, even neon.”

The museum hosted a feature show in 2012 called The Light Circus, showcasing statewide vintage neon. She says the show succeeded because people are fascinated by the nontraditional art form.

Four hours east in Elko, another museum has been displaying neon. The Western Folklife Center has been blending neon works with more traditional cowboy art in its Wiegand Gallery and at the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Meg Glaser is the artistic director there. She says they are all about living culture, but are also rooted in the past.

“So, showing some of these vintage neon that a lot of our audience has memories of connects to the past but brings it into a new context that people can appreciate, and we obviously have to work with living artisans to restore some of this work, so it's kind of keeping that tradition going.”

For years, signs like the Mapes cowboys, a glowing red bull's head, and the Nevada Club’s Bucky Buckaroo have been alongside carved leather saddles, pieces of engraved silver, spurs and rawhide ropes--all made by Western artisans. Some think neon is having an uptick of success, with it being recognized as the new state element in Nevada, and let's not forget how The Atlantic magazine called it the ultimate symbol of the twentieth century. 

With that, we can probably expect the glowing lights will keep popping up in expected and unexpected places, especially if Jeff Johnson has anything to say about it.