Light touch

Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson’s new series of “Ptotems” sculptures are made with neon and corrugated plastic.

Jeff Johnson’s new series of “Ptotems” sculptures are made with neon and corrugated plastic.

PHOTO/MATT BIEKER

Two events featuring Jeff Johnson’s neon sculptures will take place on Aug. 11, Racing in the Streets at the Potentialist Workshop and Short Circuit, which will be spread across three venues—Holland Project, Nevada Museum of Art and Shopper’s Square.

Jeff Johnson makes and repairs classic neon signs and original sculptures.

“They won’t pay me for my art, but they’ll pay me to fix their beer signs,” he said.

Johnson came to Reno 25 years ago after losing his job as a conductor at Western Pacific Railroad to what he calls “presidential mediation” on the part of George Bush senior and began to learn his craft from one of the many neon sign shops in town at the time.

“I worked at a cowboy sign shop for six bucks an hour, stealing everything I could in my head,” he said. “It was the last chance to learn how to do it the old-school way, and we had this old-timer that worked here that knew how to do it all, where you just kept your mouth shut and do it the way he does because there’s a reason for everything.”

Whereas automatic systems and digital design programs make most neon signs today, Johnson works by sketching schematics on paper, heating and bending delicate glass tubing with a hand torch and vaporizing liquid mercury with a powerful electric transformer at his home studio.

“You see, neon’s got three parts,” Johnson said. “The first two are artistic. That’s the designing it and the glass blowing, and then the third part is the mad-scientist part—you get to light it.”

Johnson was one of the instigators of the original Dada Motel—later called Nada Dada, now called Nadaville—although he is no longer affiliated. He is responsible for many neon signs around the city, like those displayed in Brüka Theatre’s window. He also recently installed a temporary luminous blue star flag at the painted “N” on Peavine.

For his next show, Racing in the Streets, at the Potentialist Workshop, Johnson intends to feature one of his “Ptotems.” They’re made from either single or multicolored neon glass and wrapped in corrugated plastic that he procured from a sign company.

“I’m going to have one in the gallery at the Potentialist, but it’s going to just be by itself,” Johnson said. “It would just obliterate anything next to it. It’s too much to have a room full of neon. No one wants to suffer through that. You can’t stand back and enjoy it—its angles and stuff.”

On the same night, Johnson will also participate in a multi-venue gallery show, Short Circuit, assisting artist Aric Shapiro with a sculpture inspired by the evening’s theme: “tech noir.” Melding elements of retro fashion, dystopian imagery and futuristic technology, the show’s aesthetic is inspired by the movie Blade Runner, which was a big inspiration to Johnson early on.

“I saw the movie, and I realized, ‘Look at all that neon,'” he said. “There’s a lot of neon in the future. I’m going to have to get in on this!”

The actual future of neon-making is still undecided. Mastering the craft requires long hours, and the pool of potential apprentices has dwindled. Johnson and his old boss, Ken Hines, are perhaps the only remaining neon craftsmen—or “tube-benders"—in town.

“There’s not enough demand for it, like there was,” said Johnson. He added that it’s up to the next generation to make the art. He believes up-and-coming artists should resist the trend of defining Reno art by its relation to Burning Man.

“Young people need to take up the slack and do something that is actually interesting,” he said.Ω