In 1993, Jeff Johnson lived in Golconda, a community of about 200 not far from Winnemucca, and worked for the railroad. He learned from a union magazine that belonged to his then-wife, an electrician, that “neon signmaker” was a trade that could be learned in Reno. He promptly moved here.
“I thought I was going to be in a union and have a 9-to-5 job,” said Johnson, wearing his signature gray ponytail, beret and conspiratorial grin.
“It took me a month to make my first word: EAT. See, you start with E when you learn. The E has all the basic bends and tricks.”
By the end of that first month, he was obsessed. As Johnson put it, his boss would complain, “I just expected you a couple hours a night. You’re here 70 hours a week.”
As soon as he scaled the learning curve, he decided to build his own shop and work for himself. He still runs his business, Neon Art Envy, out of his garage, where he repairs signs, takes commissions for new signs and makes neon artwork.
Neon as an art medium, of course, tends to be flashy and attention-getting. When it’s installed in a gallery, the glow usually takes up the whole room. Johnson, however, known for trying to bend the limits of his materials and their exhibitionist reputation, often relegates the bright tubes from center stage. One of his favorite experiments is to find different ways to use a glowing, gas-filled rod of glass to work harmoniously with other materials—sagebrush or street signs, for example.
“Sometimes I hide it behind perforated metal—that helps,” he said. Two examples are his fixtures at Red Rock and Our Bar.
Dozens of his neon signs and sculptures are on permanent display in shop windows, bars, restaurants and private collections all over Reno. Preparing for his upcoming exhibit, Shine A Light Neon Conspiracy at the Potentialist Gallery, he gestured toward an empty wall. “The reason I don’t want to have a show of just me is this whole town is my gallery,” he said. For this exhibit, rather than gathering up the work that’s already out there, he’s collaborated with over a dozen different artists, using neon to highlight their work but not overwhelm it.
“In some, the neon’ll be part of the piece, and some it’ll just light it,” he said. For example, he built neon marionettes for puppeteer Bernie Beauchamp to use during a performance.
Working with Ned Peterson, who puts thick layers of paint onto canvasses with a spatula, Johnson recessed a tube of neon behind a painting to emphasize its textural peaks and valleys.
“It’s like when you see the morning sun start to rise and the hills have shadows,” Johnson said.
Even though he’s been making neon obsessively for over two decades, he said he’s still perfecting his craft. He makes it sound exacting: “You have to heat the glass and then bend it and try to keep to the same diameter of the tube. What you see is the electricity going back and forth through the tube at 120 times a second.”
Neon is usually made of four-foot lengths of glass tubing, and typically while people are learning, a lot of broken glass accrues. “Piles,” Johnson said. He’s had people ask for instruction. “I’ve never had anyone show up twice,” he said.
Nonetheless, 23 years after he first saw that magazine ad back in Golconda, Johnson keeps aiming ever higher as a craftsperson and artist. He said, “I still haven’t met my own standards.”