We see neon on almost every street - to illuminate hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and the bodega on the corner. It’s a century-old tradition that is slowly dying out, as LED lights create a similar effect while being more efficient in regards to energy consumption, maintenance and brightness. With that said, there are still loads of artists working in neon and creating visual art pieces that nod to this tradition of signage and master craftsmanship. It’s not uncommon to see neon text sprawling the wall of a white box gallery, but how many of these artists took the time to learn how to bend glass, fill it with a bunch of gas, hook it up to an electrode, and light it up? I’m making it sound simple, but it’s actually one of the most mind-bending processes I’ve ever read about (details later).
Meryl Pataky is a master in the art of neon. Her work revolves around elements found in the periodic table including silver, copper, iron, carbon and noble gasses. Inspired by universal connectedness, Meryl creates abstract and text-based works integrating the chemical process of creating neon, the technical skills of welding and glass-bending, and a little bit of electricity.
How did you begin working in sculpture and develop your aesthetic as an artist?
I got a BFA in sculpture, which allowed me to learn every medium. Being obsessed with material and process was a huge thing for me. I pride myself on my knowledge of many materials. My initial aesthetic in neon was text-based because I had a lot to say, and I was feeling all the art school feels.
Science is obviously an important part of your practice, and therefore your work. Is this something you are passionate about, were you always interested in the sciences?
I got way super interested in my 20's. I have gone through some grief in my life, and my life and questioning and a need for escape brought me to learning more about outer space and chemistry. These were solid answers about the foundation of life. And it pretty much filled in some gaps in my mind about what happens when we die - same thing as what happens to everything in the universe, the transference of energy to something else.
What is your favorite element?
Probably Helium. It's a peach-colored gas that's beautiful, and it's also the 1st building block in the process of life (hydrogen fuses to helium in the creation of stars). That's what starts it all off.
What was the process like for learning about these materials and the equipment you need to create your works? Was that daunting at all?
Yes, so super daunting. It is everyday. It's a huge expense, both financially and time-wise. I have been doing it for 6 or so years, and I just got my equipment set up earlier last year to do my own processing. I was bending my own stuff and had my mentors process the tubes for me because it's super hard to just have 5k laying around to drop on the equipment you need. I still have investments I need to make to improve that system for myself. It was a slow process for me building my shop out, and I'll probably continue to every year to make it better, more efficient. Learning to bend initially came with a class at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and then I bothered my teacher after I graduated to be my mentor, and he helped me learn even more and continues to help me. I have a couple of mentors now, and my mentors have mentors. Now, I'm starting to mentor others. It's important to mentor if you are a tradesperson, and it's important as an observer to be interested in how things are made. Otherwise, the craft is going to die. We need more young people interested in the process and wanting to pick it up for themselves. Trust me, many of the veterans in the industry are super excited when a younger person wants to learn. It means the trade will live on.
Briefly, what is the process for making a neon sculpture?
You always need to have a pattern and design first. There is a lot of planning that goes into it before the act of creation. The pattern is very important because you bend directly onto it. Different power sources take different sizes and lengths of glass, so this needs to be planned out as well. It's less of an organic free-flowing medium like painting or ceramics. It's tedious. You have to see where the end is in order to start the beginning, again, unlike painting, as an example. Also, how is it going to hang? In a panel, directly on the wall? Is electricity available? It's not magic! It needs an outlet! Then you play in fires and do a lot of mad scientist stuff and hopefully you don't break it.
Do you have any studio rituals?
I like to play shows in the background on hulu while I'm working more than I listen to music. Especially during monotonous tasks, it's good background. Podcasts are cool too - Serial, The Moth, etc.
Can you talk a little bit about signage and how you are transforming this idea of sign as advertisement and propaganda?
Signage is commercial. Most artists in the art world today who use neon in their work are showcasing it as a commercial medium even if they don't intend to because they pay someone, a tube-bender/sign-maker, to make it. It's hard to expect every artist who uses a few neon pieces in their portfolio to do it themselves - it's expensive and time-consuming to set up a shop and do it yourself. But those who do do it themselves, have to be the commercial sign-maker and the artist in order to pay for the art. I feel like more of a sign-maker than an artist most days because I have to make a living, but it's a pretty cool living to have. The dilemma of my medium is always there for me. Is it art, is it a sign? Getting away from text-based works helps this in my mind. Which is what I'll be doing in the future. There are too many text-based works out there now, which makes it all blend together: sign vs. art, craft vs. art, bla bla bla. When people pay someone else to make a piece for them, the idea itself becomes the art, not the medium or process. People advertising their feelings literally with text via luminous tubes ends up being just that, advertising. People ask me sometimes, "Who makes your neon?" as if it's expected that I don't. I'd like to start making neon works that are less of a sign and more of a process-driven abstract thing and showcase that it is "handmade by artist".
What is the tradition of bending neon?
The commercialization of neon started in the early 1900's in Paris. Immediately, for obvious reasons, it was used for advertising and was considered high class for a while. Then somewhere along the way, it became seen as seedy and not so high class. Maybe Vegas contributed to this, I don't know. If you look at pictures of SF Market Street during the 20's there was SO MUCH neon, and then the city started funding projects to take it down and "beautify" sections of the city. So, obviously they considered it not beautiful at some point. The act of making it has always been to bend small sections of glass tubing to create bends that eventually make up the design. Bend by bend, one at a time. Sometimes this means 5 bends in a piece, sometimes it's 40 or more. Then, through a process called bombarding, you attach the glass to a system of tubes and valves and a vacuum. You heat up the tubes with large currents and burn off any impurities inside the tube to clean it, then the vacuum sucks it out. Then you fill it with noble gas (Neon, Argon, Krypton, Helium or Xenon) once the tube is processed and cleaned. That's the short story.
Do you feel like this tradition is gendered?
YES! Mostly male, but it's cool, the females are super special in this industry. I like feeling special.
Do you think that your gender informs your practice in this niche of sculpture?
I'm not sure if it informs my practice (the actual act of making the stuff), but it does inform my work, the finished product.
What does feminism mean to you?
My idea of feminism isn't this always strong, unbeatable woman. My version of my femininity and being a female artist includes self-questioning and sometimes doubt. I think that it's good to question and adjust and learn and make mistakes. I think it's realistic, and most women go through this. For me, the expectation of being a strong female all the time sometimes gives me a feeling of inadequacy when I don't feel strong everyday. I need to remind myself that it's normal to have ups and downs, and if we don't have the downs, we don't know how good the ups are, and we never learn how to pull ourselves up.