Illuminated by antique neon signs, Matt Thompson pursed his lips around a plastic tube and blew into the glass letter warping under the blue flames.
He wore sunglasses and a shirt that read “old school,” but no gloves — the better to sculpt the piece with torches in his northeast Minneapolis shop.
“Not many of us left,” Thompson said, talking out of the side of his mouth. But the neon artisans “who stuck it out and are still in the industry have as much work as they want to pursue.”
That’s a contentious opinion.
Some of these “benders,” as they call themselves, say neon is flickering out. Others say they can’t fill orders fast enough. But they all agree: The century-old industry is doing better in Minnesota than in most other states.
“It’s kind of like follow the path of beer, right?” said Robert Johnson, artist and owner of Neoneon Art & Design, also in northeast Minneapolis. Where there is beer, he said, there were beer signs and the craftspeople making them.
In its heyday, local architects and designers embraced the medium, looping neon through skyways and circling building tops. There were training programs dotting the state, and one of the nation’s first neon schools opened in a 6,000-square-foot studio across from the Monte Carlo restaurant (with its classic neon sign).
Today, restored neon signs have surged in popularity as Americana trends sweep into home decor. But out in the elements, the once glowing beacons of neon light in the Twin Cities, like the famed Pillsbury’s Best Flour sign, now use LEDs.
Is it only a matter of time before LED technology shuts off the lights on the neon industry?
“To me, it’s kind of illogical to say anything is going to die,” said Brad Jirka, co-founder of the American School of Neon. “It’s the question of ‘Who is going to continue it?’ ”
Neon has a cyclical story: People announce its death, it wanes commercially, then artists come along and light up things again.
Neon entered the United States in the 1920s and was the hot new thing until plastic signs illuminated by ultraviolet light threatened to kill the industry in the 1960s. Over the next two decades, what used to represent “American prosperity” became “red light district,” said Eric Lynxwiler, board member of the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, Calif.
Lynxwiler thanks visual artists for keeping neon lit these decades — a credit many in the Twin Cities would accept.
A group of benders and artists crowded neon classes at the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design in the 1970s to the point where, Jirka said, he, Katherine Jones and Cork Marcheschi started the American School of Neon in 1984 partly out of annoyance.
There, about six instructors trained more than 200 students from 1984 to 1995. Several current benders estimated that there are 10 remaining neon artists statewide, with roughly 500 nationwide.
The quintessential neon customer these days is someone like Jon Mathisrud. Wearing his “loudest and most obnoxious” Hawaiian shirt, he recently swung open the door at Thompson’s shop, Skyline Neon, carrying a damaged Wurlitzer Jukebox sign tucked under his arm.
Mathisrud buys signs to restore — sometimes by the dozen. He could get a Goodyear neon sign (6 feet in diameter) for $50 in the 1980s.
“It wasn’t worth anything because nobody wanted it,” Mathisrud said.
Then, eBay happened.
“It’s those damn shows like ‘American Pickers’ that are telling everybody that this sign is worth thousands of dollars,” Lynxwiler said.
For people like Thompson, TV shows popularizing refurbished signs means more jobs. For people like Lynxwiler, who want to preserve signs, it means owners cling to rusting signs, or thieves pluck them off walls and put them on the market where “the history of that sign is lost.”
At condo and retail developments, neon script signs are a popular new way to say luxury, Johnson said.
Yes, a smaller amount of neon is being used these days, Thompson said, but fewer people are competing for that work.
“There’s one neon guy for every half a million people in Minnesota,” Thompson said. “So there’s less neon guys than brain surgeons out there.”
Others say the industry never truly jumped back after LEDs took over backlighting work and glass businesses like FMS Neon in Bloomington pulled stock as demand waned.
“LEDs [decimated] neon,” said Mike Sweet, general manager of FMS Neon. “It’s a cottage industry with mostly artists.”
Neon illuminated 33 percent of signs in 2007 and LEDs illuminated 23 percent, according to a survey by trade magazine Signs of the Times. By 2010, LEDs accounted for nearly half, with neon at 18 percent.
People debate which is truly longer-lasting and sustainable, as well as cost-efficient. A neon sign lasts around 20 to 30 years, but can be maintained to last for decades longer.
The Grain Belt neon sign was erected in 1941, was moved to Nicollet Island in 1950 and stayed lit until 1975. After years of going on and off, it will soon join a local procession of large neon signs refurbished with LED technology, partly thanks to new grants and a preservation tax credit, according to Erin Hanafin Berg of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.
It’s hard for some purists to accept the transition to LEDs.
“It’s like putting a Chinese motor in a 1957 Chevy,” Thompson said.
People may debate neon’s commercial riches right now, but they agree on one looming issue:
The majority of neon benders are baby boomers, more in tune with the artisanal craft than ever, but nearing retirement. An aspiring bender once could graduate from a school, take a paid apprenticeship at a sign company and hone his/her skills.
“[But] nobody wants to spend so much time apprenticing for a craft that other people say is dead,” said Lynxwiler.
There are some neon programs buried in school art departments, according to Jirka and Jones, and the Museum of Neon Art is starting six-week courses, the same length as the former American School of Neon.
Jon Ault, who works on a freelance basis out of third-generation Kaufman Sign Co., will also teach neon classes at the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center in Minneapolis, possibly by this fall. He wants to pass along the trade — even if, he said, no one is hiring neon benders.
But if they work as artists and “start showing things in galleries, start putting things up in public, start convincing designers and architects,” Ault said, the “suits” will follow the light.
“We all started the school to assure a ‘dying’ craft would not be lost and now the next generation is doing the same,” Jirka said.