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Neon Club makes magic with fire, light and energy

Students brighten art culture with their use of neon and glass bending skills

Neon club member Mike Butzine bends glass on Nov. 17, 2016. 

Neon club member Mike Butzine bends glass on Nov. 17, 2016. 

Neon Club bends, twists, heats, sculpts and brings light to ASU’s art galleries.

The club introduces a different type of sculpting that involves the creation or restoration of neon signage, as well as the addition of neon light to art sculpture. Neon Club occupies the Sculpture Studio on Tuesday and Thursday nights for its club meetings. These flow into the Neon class offered at ASU and taught by sculpture professor and club advisor James White.

“It looks real easy, but it’s harder than it looks,” White said.

Neon projects differ from other sculpture because a lot of sculptors use materials like stone or steel, but neon projects incorporate glass bending and use light while manipulating materials to reflect light. 

Like moths to the flame, White said neon signs draw people closer and emit light that physically affects the way people feel.

"It's hard not to look at it," White said. "There's a certain magic that neon has. It's the same kind of thing when you have a multi-colored Christmas tree."

This bright final product is achieved after a lot of struggling to master the techniques of glass bending, as it is easy to break or collapse the glass.

White teaches the Neon class and helps students with their techniques and on their projects. He holds club meetings before the class as well as works with students during class to show them how to properly heat, bend and handle glass and neon. 

President of the club, sculpture senior Patrick Brandt, was inspired by the idea of light and neon, which introduced him to becoming an artist and a part of the club.

His art of choice, glass bending, requires lots of time and patience when first working in the studio. Glass bending challenges come into play when members drop the tubes or cool them and try to reheat them, causing the glass to break.

“If you cry on your neon, it cracks too,” Brandt said with a laugh.

Vice president Mike Butzine, undeclared graduate student, said glass bending mostly relies on two tools: gravity and heat.

“Gravity and heat are your friends,” Butzine said. “Or your enemies, either one.”

With a lot of difficult skills to master, club members have to be active in their projects, taking advantage of club sessions by asking questions and seeking guidance while also coming into the studio on their own time to work on their art.

At the beginning of the semester, around 15 members watch videos learning how to properly glass bend, culminating in a field trip to Graham’s Neon in Mesa, where students can get their tool boxes and participate in a workshop.

After getting some tips at Graham’s Neon, students can get their hands dirty and start working on individualized projects.

The club has artists feature their work in multitudes of exhibitions, including their most recent one called Hot City Lights on Grand Avenue in Phoenix. Their project portrayed conversations between people by having neon pieces interact with other sculptures while depicting the metaphor of transferring light from one body to another.

Their upcoming exhibition is called The Lighthouse, which will be featured at Alwun House, one of the oldest galleries in Phoenix. The club is planning to do a demonstration where people at the gallery can come up and try glass bending, engaging citizens of downtown Phoenix into the work they do.

“If anything, (Hot City Lights) was just to show the Downtown Phoenix scene what glass is,” Butzine said. “There’s all these painting shows, there’s a few sculpture shows, but there’s nothing in glass. I felt like that’s what we represent, so the reason why there’s no glass shows is because we (hadn’t) had one yet.”

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