A Colossal Interview
The Founders of the Neon Art Collective ‘She Bends’ On the Womxn at the Forefront of the Trade
August 12, 2020
Colossal contributor Claire Voon spoke with Meryl Pataky and Kelsey Issel of She Bends, a collective of womxn who bend neon, via Zoom in August 2020. This interview has been edited for clarity. The artwork above is by Megan Stelljes.
Claire: Where are you both based as the pandemic persists?
Meryl: I live in Oakland and my shop is in San Francisco. Kelsey is in Marfa, Texas.
Claire: Meryl, do you currently have access to a studio space, and if so, have you been able to make new work during this time?
Meryl: I could either work at home, where I have a setup in my garage, or work at my shop. I was supposed to have a solo show in April that got postponed until September at Pt.2 Gallery, so I’m working on that. It’s all new work, and it’s kind of crazy because the themes that I was discussing were a lot of American guilt type of things like capitalism and colonialism, exploitation of people and labor. So I’m actually grateful that I’ve had time to experience the work in this context and spend more time with it.
Claire: I feel like many artists are struggling to find motivation to create during this crisis, but having a deadline probably helps.
Meryl: Yes, a deadline is helpful. I just really have no choice. It’s been hard, certainly, and my mood goes up and down. I’ve also had a lot of commissions that started before COVID happened, which is a blessing, and I had to see them through.
Claire: Having a community to turn to during this time of prolonged isolation and stress is also a blessing—it’s vital, really. How has She Bends served as a support system for its artists in recent months?
Meryl: We were able to provide a small stipend to our artists in the beginning of the pandemic as a result of our most recent exhibition with Loveland Museum in Colorado. Also, if they’re looking for materials or if some people have access to their studios and others don’t, we try to help one another out. It’s been really rewarding to see that, both during and outside of pandemic times, we’re creating this community of people who can rely on one another.
Kelsey: It’s also given us a lot of time to think about the purpose of having a community of women who are bending their own neon. Not only the pandemic but also the Black Lives Matter movement, and the importance of anti-racism work right now has steered conversations of how we can responsibly diversify the voices of neon, to have it not be just white men and commercial signs, but women and people of color using light to illuminate their work.
Claire: Just how overwhelmingly male is the industry today? Is it still sort of a boys’ club? Are men the gatekeepers of the trade?
Meryl: We all have stories where some male says something really stupid in front of us, or various experiences where we felt gaslit, or sexist comments on the job. But we’re also very grateful because we’ve all learned from men. Most, if not all, of us have had mentors that are men. So yes, they have been the gatekeepers, and many of them have taken us under their wing and taught us. So we can’t really say too many bad things about them. But you know, they’re old men, so it’s not like we haven’t batted our eyelashes to get what we wanted, right? I would say that more recently, there have been a lot more a lot more women, and there are a few veteran women benders who have been bending since the 1980s or ‘90s.
Kelsey: Sarah Blood, who is part of She Bends, is a professor at Alfred University in upstate New York. This year, two of her students who are also She Bends members were a part of the Loveland show. So it’s really meaningful that we’re starting to see this lineage of women teachers and women students. One of the initiatives of She Bends is to really promote our members to teach the trade. Neon is a master-apprentice trade so it kind of inherently has gatekeepers, and as it grows, Meryl and I are really trying to grow it responsibly. We see those gatekeepers changing hands, and then we’ll see the students change and the demographic of students change, and hopefully the industry becomes more inclusive and diverse.
There’s also the overwhelming male gaze of the neon commercial industry. So many of the signs that we associate with neon are “Girls, girls, girls” or bodies. And it was politicized so much that neon became this symbol of riff-raff and seedy areas.
Meryl: The Market Street beautification project in 1967 involved taking down a lot of the neon signs that used to be on Market Street in San Francisco, which was flooded with neon.
Claire: Although She Bends grew out of California, it is a collective with members around the world. How does membership work—is it pretty loose, or is there an official roster that people can join?
Kelsey: It’s ever-evolving. The first show was a curatorial project selecting women who were bending their own work, and that has expanded to include those we feel are maybe young but dedicated to the medium and to the process. There is no fee. It’s more an invite—usually, when we have a show, new members come in.
Claire: As a collective directed by white women [and currently with majority-white members], how does She Bends make space for and support Black, Indigenous, and other neon artists of color?
Kelsey: We are inclusive, but we can only be as inclusive as there are artists to be inclusive to. That is the biggest challenge we come up against when trying to make our membership diverse. Teaching needs to be accessible. What we would absolutely love to do is get grants or other kinds of funding for artists so they are able to host workshops all over the nation to BIPOC women so it can be accessible. Then hopefully their passion in neon continues, and they become teachers. This is the lineage we are talking about.
Meryl: We also created [accountability] pledges on our website and made it clear we would be sending copies of The Neon Engineers Notebook—which is what we call our bible now—to any BIPOC women who came to us and wanted a free copy. We’re sending them as long as we have copies left.
Neon, for the most part, was made for a certain class and race. They were opulent entrances to theaters, even Greyhound bus stations. Those entrances were for certain people. It’s been interesting to dive into the history of neon and why it hasn’t felt accessible to certain people, why we’re not seeing more people of color in the field. That is one of the main goals of She Bends: to create diversity and sustainability in the field of neon.
Claire: Meryl, you recently announced an annual mentorship program for BIPOC women to learn and practice neon out of your studio. Can you tell us more about that?
Meryl: It’s a work in progress. I have a great mentee now named T. Rasheed, who is a co-founder of [the Bay Area collective] See Black Womxn along with Angela Hennessy and Dana King. T took a workshop with me and expressed an interest in continuing in the field. I had wanted to start a mentorship program for BIPOC women, and she’s been flexible in lending her brain to it. She’s created an outline of expectations for both sides and what she’d like to see come out of the program. My only thing is that we create work together, that I help her create something that’s meaningful to her.
It’s looking like a three- to four-month mentorship, once a year, and it would be an open-call type of application process, no experience needed. And I would be giving priority to BIPOC women.
Claire: She Bends is all about emphasizing the handiwork of neon—I appreciate that its Instagram page doesn’t just show finished designs but also photographs of artists physically bending tubes. Can you give us some insight into the typical labor required of a neon artwork?
Meryl: It is glass tubing that’s bent in specialty fires. So setting up your fires and your studio is a huge process. The tubing is heated, bent, and breathed into—we puff into the tube to expand it back out to its original diameter. Every single bend and curve you see in a letter form, for example, is another bend. There could be at least 12 bends just to create the letter “B.”
There’s a process called bombarding, during which we’re essentially cleaning the inside of the tube and leaving room for only noble gas. We bombard the glass with current, which causes the heat to rise, and it causes impurities within the tube to outgas. Then the vacuum sucks it out of the tube. It’s very tedious. It’s a long process. I’m sure you can imagine that by the time it lights up and everything works, it’s extremely rewarding for the maker.
Claire: Another part of She Bends’ mission is to promote responsible engagement with the neon industry. What are some of the urgent issues around neon consumption?
Meryl: LED “neon” is a really huge problem. Most companies that sell LED flex, which is what these signs are made of, market their product to say it’s more eco-friendly than neon. They’ll say that LED takes 80 percent less power than neon, which is unequivocally false; neon is extremely efficient. The only thing LED is more efficient than is an incandescent bulb. It’s also made of plastic. In addition, neon lasts longer than LED. But companies say a lot of false things to sell their products.
What I try to do is educate consumers about these erroneous statements and for them to be more conscious in their consumption. Neon is becoming popular, and the design market is picking it up. People don’t really care about how things are made. If you want to buy a $75 neon sign for your college dorm room, fine, but you get what you pay for.
Kelsey: These LED flex companies are completely commercial—all they care about is their bottom line. They don’t care about craft, artistry, or message. Neon has to be made by hand, and with that craft and that time comes added expense. These flex companies also take real neon by real artists, many of whom are artists with She Bends, and just copy it. They have no respect for the craft of making real neon or the artist’s hand. They take these ideas and sell signs at an eighth of the price.
Claire: And that all also feeds into people’s perception of the value of neon works and how much they expect to pay for them. It’s the same story as fast fashion, which causes people to get sticker shock when they see what is actually a fair price.
Meryl: A hundred percent. And in the ‘90s, LED almost decimated the neon sign business. All of it was replaced by LED, which is fine—they’re cheaper—but the sign installers are stoked because they have a steady paycheck. Every year, they have to replace an LED that’s crapped out on them. A neon sign will last decades and decades as long as it’s made well. That is more sustainable than a piece of plastic that is going to go into the landfill with lead and arsenic in it.
Claire: You’ve also been vocal about what you call “spiritual gaslighting”—the tendency for people to think that neon should spread only positive vibes. This is especially important since discussions on toxic positivity have recently been emerging online. Firstly, why do you think that has become the assumed role of neon?
Meryl: There’s been a lot of successful artists whose work has inspired people to feel really good and positive—and that’s great. But those artists have another side of their messaging, which isn’t all positivity all the time. I think the positivity part has been taken and twisted into the command to feel good, like “Good vibes only,” or “Live more worry less,” which is a command to live a certain way. It’s become this really diluted toxic positivity messaging. And when we think about accessibility, and who these signs are made for…these signs are not it. These signs are made for a white girl.
Kelsey: Neon is on this precarious border. It’s commercial signage but also moving into this realm of decor, so I think that’s why it’s particularly susceptible to diluted messages.
Claire: Also, I feel that scolding neon artists who are women for not wanting to put out positive messages only stems from patriarchal expectations. It’s not dissimilar to people telling us to smile.
Meryl: We are creating light. So how do we want to use that light? Especially in times like these, there should be an inherent responsibility that messages, especially those in bright lights, be important messages or calls to action. Talking about things that are uncomfortable, shedding light on them, should be the role of neon art, and in my experience is the work I like the most.
To me, the narrative of neon as the antagonist is also more interesting. It really fueled American capitalism for an entire century. It’s been the accomplice of American industry. It had a role in segregation and Jim Crow, which I am researching for a piece I’m writing. A starting point for that is this image by Gordon Parks as a part of Segregation Story, a collection of photographs taken in 1956. The sign was made for a department store in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a strange thing looking at this photograph. Albeit beautiful, it speaks of a really ugly history. I’m currently working on tracking down the location of the original sign to get some more information on it. You have to remember that neon is signage, and the signage world was definitely a part of Jim Crow.
Claire: Outside your own projects, what other ventures does She Bends have marinating that you might be able to share?
Kelsey: We have a project with Black Joy Parade to connect neon benders with Black artists of any kind, which will result in an interactive exhibition and walking tour around Oakland. We’re working on launching a web shop with accessible neon pieces made responsibly by an independent craftswoman. We’re working with our artists to create smaller works that are ready to make, ship, and are plug-in ready so you don’t need a neon installer. And we’re creating apparel and little objects with artists who have imagery that looks beautiful even when not in neon, so people can still buy their art even if they don’t have the financial capability to buy their neon.
Meryl: We’re also noticing that bigger, rich-kids-started neon flex companies have spent so much money in advertising that they come up first when people search for a sign online. We are going to try to compete with that presence while creating actual neon works from female-identifying benders.
Claire: On that note, can you please shout out some neon artists that readers can follow?
Kelsey: Some of the women we are actively working with for the shop are Kate Hush, who is a bender and illustrator; Megan Stelljes who is also an incredible glass blower; and Tiza Maldonado, who is LA-based and is creating a limited series of smaller neon works. Kacie Lees’ small neon works will also be featured in the launch this fall.
Meryl: Tiza makes these intricate floral works, and she had this challenge on Vice where she had to build an infinity mirror experience at LA’s flower market in 72 hours. Stephanie Lifshutz has made in neon a lot of sexist conversations and experiences that she’s had. One of the pieces she did says, “I could wear a strap-on if it would make you feel better,” which was something she said under her breath to a sexist guy at an installation who clearly didn’t feel confident in her abilities. Kate is the same—they are both radical feminists. Kate is drawn to the idea of the dangerous woman, this femme fatale, and to neon’s relationship with noir films, and how women were portrayed or treated in these films. Her vibe is very much about the nasty woman.
To explore more of the womxn behind She Bends, check out the collective’s Instagram.