Neon river

Local artist Jeff Johnson fills the Truckee River with glowing aquatic art

Jeff Johnson is known for his fish…

Jeff Johnson is known for his fish…

Photo by David Robert

“This work is two-thirds artistic, one-third mad scientist,” neon artist Jeff Johnson says with a roguish grin.

He is standing outside Java Jungle, looking over at the Truckee River, the soon-to-be site of his unconventional exhibit, Truckee River Fish Market. With his long, honey-brown hair, five o’clock shadow and the aforementioned mischievous grin, Johnson looks like he has some mad scientist in his blood. Watch him talk about his work—and see his blue eyes flicker with an infectious eagerness as he talks about little tubes of neon gas—and you’ll know that you’re dealing with an alchemist of sorts.

A neon alchemist.

The Reno arts scene, and Artown in particular, flourishes in the areas surrounding the Truckee River. Crowds congregate in Wingfield Park to listen to music; the Brüka and Riverfront theaters put on shows; downtown galleries showcase some of the region’s hottest visual artists.

We not only subsist on the river in a literal sense, but we draw from it many of our social and cultural wares. While taking in all of this downtown culture, we cross over, walk alongside and hang out near the Truckee River, yet most of us admire it fleetingly as we scurry to arrive at our play or indie film on time. This summer, however, the river itself will give Renoites cause for pause.

A total of 20 neon Lahontan cutthroat trout will populate a stretch of the Truckee River at Wingfield Park from Sierra Street to Arlington Avenue. The fish, wired to a 20-channel flasher, will appear as if they are making their way upstream to spawn when the flasher is turned on every Wednesday and Friday night in July.

The exhibit, sponsored by Sierra Arts, is a nod to two bygone eras—the “golden age” of neon and the bounty days of the cutthroat trout.

“I first got an appreciation for the fish when I lived in Sutcliffe, Nev. [in 1991],” Johnson says. “From my Indian friends out there, I learned an appreciation for the trout and what they mean to the land, the river and the people of the land.”

In a way of life now long gone, Native Americans subsisted largely on the cutthroat trout. In 1905, the construction of the Derby Dam—which diverts water from the Truckee River into the Truckee Canal—put the species in danger. The river was restocked with trout from other areas, Johnson says, but a simple way of life was over.

…the neon type.

Photo by David Robert

“They [the government] were going to make the desert bloom, just like in the Bible,” Johnson says. “At the time, it was probably a great idea, except that they didn’t give the fish a way to get upstream.”

Today, Johnson says, most Americans Indians of the region shop for food at a grocery store “like everybody else,” but they retain a reverence for the trout because they almost lost them.

Despite his longtime familiarity with the story of the Lahontan cutthroat, Johnson just came up with the idea to fill the Truckee with the illuminated trout last December. Sierra Arts then stepped in to give “legitimacy” to the project.

“Otherwise,” he says, “It would have been instant neon graffiti.”

Johnson is an artist with a strong sense of community. Whenever he mentions his work, he is quick to name those who have helped him make his ideas a reality. He frequently praises Sierra Arts, the foundation from which he received an endowment grant. Brüka Theater, however, crops up most often amid the name-dropping, a place Johnson refers to passionately as “my church.” Johnson is also enthusiastic about his “day job” at Wittenburg Hall, where he teaches painting.

“You’ve never had a group of more grateful artists,” he says of his students there.

Yes, Johnson is a painter, too. He got his artistic start with watercolors, and he still takes up the brush, although clearly not with the same enthusiasm with which he attacks his neon art. And it’s his neon that’s creating all the buzz around the Biggest Little City: Johnson has works on display at venues as diverse as the Sierra Arts Center, Brüka Theater, Zephyr Lounge, and soon, Burning Man.

“It’s easy—it’s just like stacking firewood,” Johnson says of his art, once again flashing a conspiratorial smile.

Johnson pays tribute to the Silver State in a way that only he could.

Photo by David Robert

Easy for him now, maybe. Johnson admits that neon did not come naturally to him at first.

“It [was] really hard to do,” Johnson says. “It took me a month to make a sign [saying] ‘eat.'”

Johnson says that generally, only the most dedicated artists can truly master their craft—or make a living at it. He says that he was looking for “art with a commercial application,” but that he wasn’t good enough to get a job with a neon sign-making company. He continued to pursue the craft out of love; he had, after all, moved all the way from Winnemucca to Reno to learn neon sign-making after losing his job as a conductor for the Pacific Railroad. Johnson was involved in a strike with the Pacific Railroad during the presidency of George (not W.) Bush, a strike that was settled—not in Johnson’s favor—by a presidential mediation board.

“George Bush signed my job away,” Johnson says. “So I became an artist.”

Outlining the history of neon in America, Johnson says that it first arrived here in the late 1920s. Then, at prohibition’s end in the early 1930s, “everybody needed a neon beer sign, and they needed it yesterday.”

Inspired by the neon culture that thrived in Nevada in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the “golden age” of neon, Johnson believes that with art, less is more. Old-fashioned roadside diner signs, for example, are far more his style than the flashy lights of Las Vegas.

“Nothing I do has anything to do with Vegas,” Johnson says. “I learned how to love Nevada in Winnemucca, and it’s 100 years from Vegas. [Neon] is already too bright. The more you can simplify things, the better off you’ll be.”

Johnson also draws inspiration from the abstract expressionists of the 1920s and has a particular fondness for Dadaism. His love for rural Nevada and for Dadaism come together in a work now on display at Sierra Arts Center titled “Nevada at the Crossroads,” a piece that he made from a giant tumbleweed, chicken wire and green neon tubing. Johnson tucked the tubing into the tumbleweed to give it an eerie neon glow and tacked chicken wire to the wall behind it.

Johnson, however, is reluctant to comment on the piece’s deeper meaning—if it has a deeper meaning.

"[I make] Dada art only Nevadans could understand,” he says. “It’s Dada anti-art.”

And a bit of mad science, perhaps.