Promoting Neon
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Promoting Neon

The neon trade has a relatively short history and sadly, much of it is marked with secrecy and distrust that perseveres even today. This keeping apprehension stems from an earlier time when neon was novel in the marketplace, sovereign in the sign trade and extremely profitable. Folks tried to steal or conceal their neon secrets; those tricks of the trade that they believed would propel them or maintain their lead within the industry.

By Randall Caba

Fortunately, as a former ASE certified auto mechanic, I learned that good came from sharing skills and experiences and developing methods of member qualification. Unfortunately in neon, I learned that its knowledgeable members often shunned sharing information and were reserved in efforts to organize. Their response was commonly separatist, even competitive. Perhaps during their apprenticeship, this was the response offered to them and maybe it was necessary for survival. But today, we face a competitor larger than just the guy down the street.

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  • Today neon has lost much of its novelty and its profitability. And now new products threaten to displace it. Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) advance into channel letters, a domain once commanded by neon. Eventually bright, inexpensive and programmable Light Emitting Polymers (LEPs) may dislodge neon from window and Point of Purchase signs. Now may be the time to rethink defensive attitudes to curb neon from possible demise and to grip our place in it.

    Where is the training?
    What does the neon industry offer today in defense of its berth? It certainly is not persistent unified member training, legitimate testing or certification. In fact, in the United States, little or nothing even exists of neon’s original trade schools. Most opened after World War II and the Korean War in response to returning soldiers and a booming economy. They trained dozens of students at a time and many graduates found work. Regrettably, those schools closed long ago without so much as a whimper from the industry, and their training methods from which the industry could build evaporated with them. Today, training is fragmented at best.

    Some claim you can walk into a neon shop and say, “I want to become a neon glassblower.” But I say, “Don’t expect a warm welcome.” Not even if you offer to pay well for the education. Too many glassblowers know from experience that sign shops are quick to replace or job-shuffle their tubebenders as little loyalty exists. And even if one does land a watching spot at the bending table, prepare to learn by watching over a concealing shoulder. Why should a journeyman be willing to share their hard-earned skills? Most guard their craft well.

    Now, I know that some large shops take on a select few wannabes and train them. But most come from within the company and are trained for company purposes. For many aspirant craftsmen only the school of hard knocks is readily available, teaching one’s self through books, videotapes and magazine articles then fighting for a spot in the marketplace.

    Some neon schools are at least State sanctioned but others are small sign shops that offer graduates limited training and modest credentials. A select few offer college level instruction. The Northwest Technical College in Minnesota offers a nine-month program, 36 college credit hours, with a diploma upon completion. The course covers computer concepts, career search, bending block and script letters, producing patterns and sculpture, production bending, bombarding and transformers, indoor and outdoor neon, cost analysis and first aid. You can find out more about their program online at www.ntc-online.com or by calling 1-877-SEEK-NTC.

    At the university level, the University of California at Berkeley offers a course in neon-illuminated sculpture. Christian Schiess, renowned neon artist and author of “The Light Artist Anthology,” instructs the class over fifteen Saturdays. The introductory course offers students the chance to complete two neon projects. An intermediate course further builds upon these skills where students make three or four neon art projects.

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    At the University of California in San Diego, neon guru, Ron Carlson offers beginning and intermediate neon classes as well as a unique non-instructional neon studio membership. Here supervised students use the facility during off time to further their skills and develop projects. For more information, go to www-crafts.ucsd.edu/brochure/neon.html#studio

    What we can do
    As far as I know, none of these programs are sponsored by the industry. And to be honest, I don’t know if they produce productive craftsmen for the trade or even successful neon artists. But these are the only available, federally accredited programs that I am aware of. If the industry does not actively assist in the unified training of future craftsman then we are vulnerable to replacement by organized diligence.

    For any industry to grow strong, its members must educate and qualify upcoming consorts. It’s the path taken by the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), the UAW (United Auto Workers), the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and many other organizations. Each built a trade on professional ideals then protected their members through organized professionalism. Unfortunately, the neon trade remains fraught with guarded secrets and its newest members often languish in neglect.

    Is it too late to protect the neon trade? I discovered an extensive yet partial list of individual trade unions in the United States at www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/union/namer/usa.htm. Now, why the interest in a trade union? Because a trade union organizes and mobilizes its members. It organizes them into a profession then mobilizes them to protect their interests. Ever try to tear a phone book in half? It’s easy one page a time but almost impossible when those pages are bound together.

    For too long, neon members have worked disconnected, fragmented by competition and fear. Will we rely upon another overwhelming wave of neon interest to propel our status-quo trade forward? Or are we counting on our trade secrets to protect us? Will we communicate and organize into a body of professionals? Or will we allow novel, high-tech products to knock us from our teetering post? The future of our trade is made up by the choices we make today.

    LIST OF NEON SCHOOLS (contact each for latest information):

    ACADEMY OF ART COLLEGE
    625 Sutter Street
    San Francisco, CA. 94108
    Phone: 415.274.2200
    Fax: 415.546.9737

    AMERICAN SCHOOL OF NEON
    212 N. 3rd Avenue
    Minneapolis, MN 55401
    Phone: 612.338.5045
    Fax: 612.338.5045

    BOSTON CENTER FOR ADULT EDUCATION
    c/o Strattman Design
    791 Tremont St., E517
    Boston, MA 02118
    Phone: 617.266.8821
    Fax: 617.266.6263

    BRISTOL SCHOOL OF NEON
    1534 Euclid Ave.
    Bristol, VA. 24201
    Phone: 703.669.0811
    Fax: 540.669.7120

    BRITISH SCHOOL OF NEON
    c/o Masonlite, Ltd.
    36 Chatham
    Kent ME45AX ENGLAND
    Phone: 441.634.812.751
    Fax: 441.634.811.883

    DACO NEON SCHOOL
    PO Box 461084
    Papillon, NE 68046
    Phone: 402.331.2164
    Fax: 402.331.8259

    DUTCH NEON SCHOOL
    p/a Stichting Educatieve Cursussen
    van Bleyswijckstraat 72
    2618 RT Delft, NETHERLANDS

    ED WALDRUM SCHOOL OF NEON
    905 Blue bonnet
    Irving, TX 75060
    Phone: 972.438.1628
    Fax: 972.438.1099

    HOLLYWOOD SCHOOL OF NEON
    2041 Hollywood Boulevard
    Hollywood, FL 33020
    Phone: 954.922.1100
    Fax: 954.922.7609

    LIGHTWRITERS NEON
    911 Green Bay Rd.
    Winnetka, IL 60093
    Phone: 847.291.4160
    Fax: 847.291.6865

    MAX NEON SCHOOL
    372 Olive Wood Rd.
    Toronto, ON M8Z 2Z9 CANADA Phone: 416.239.9495
    Fax: 416.239.2070

    MINNEAPOLIS COLLEGE OF ART
    2501 Stevens Avenue South
    Minneapolis, MN55404
    Phone: 612.874.3700
    Fax: 612.874.3704

    MUSEUM OF NEON ART
    501 West Olympic Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90015
    Phone: 213.489.9918
    Fax: 213.489.9932

    NATIONAL NEON INSTITUTE
    1070 Tyler St.
    Benicia, CA 94510
    Phone: 707.747.6167
    Fax: 707.745.4102

    NEO-SCULPT
    1621 Gale Dr.
    Beloit, WI 53511
    Phone: 608.368.1221

    NEON Trade School
    3871 S. Valley View #79
    Las Vegas, NV 89103
    Phone: 1-877-257-NEON or 702.220.7869
    Fax: 702.227.8340

    NEW YORK CONTEMPORARY GLASS CTR
    647 Fulton St., 3rd Fl.
    Brooklyn, NY. 11231
    Phone: 718.625.3685
    Fax: 718.625.3889

    NORTH TEXAS NEON SCHOOL
    9810 Spur 580 West
    Ft. Worth, TX 76116
    Phone: 817.560.2184

    NORTHERN WISCONSIN NEON WORKSHOP
    c/o Northern Adv. Inc.
    Box 92 N4220 Neva Rd.
    Antigo, WI 54409
    Phone: 715.623.3000
    Fax: 715.623.3000

    NORTHWEST INDIANA SCHOOL OF NEON
    436 Conkey St.
    Hammond, IN 46324
    Phone: 219.937.1560
    Fax: 219.937.2133

    NORTHWEST TECHNICAL COLLEGE
    900 Hwy. 34 East
    Detroit Lakes, MN 56501
    Phone: 218.847.1341, ext. 347
    Fax: 218.847.7170

    PARSONS SCHOOL OF DESIGN
    66 5th Ave.
    New York, NY 10011
    Phone: 212.229.8910
    Fax: 212.229.8975

    PENLAND SCHOOL OF CRAFTS
    P.O. Box 37
    Penland, NC 28765
    Phone: 828.765.2359
    Fax: 828.765.7389

    SAVAGE NEON
    4900 Wetheredsville Road
    Baltimore, MD 21207
    Phone: 410.448.5483
    Fax: 410.448.5490

    TECNOLUX SCHOOL OF NEON
    103 14th St.
    Brooklyn, NY 11215
    Phone: 718.369.3900
    Fax: 718.369.2845

    UCSD CRAFTS CENTER
    Grove Gallery
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla, CA 92093-0338
    Phone: 858.534.2630
    Fax: 858.534.8881

    UC BERKELEY EXTENSION
    Neon Illuminated Sculpture
    1995 University Ave.
    Berkeley, CA 94720-7007
    Phone: 510.642.4111

    URBAN GLASS
    647 Fulton St. 3rd Fl.
    Brooklyn, NY 11217
    Phone: 718.625.3685
    Fax: 718.625.3889

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