Awalk through two galleries in Wakefield sit over half a dozen tubes of light at least two meters high, spinning in place and creating ethereal shapes in the air. These sculptures, created by pioneering American neon artist Fred Tschida, are a spectacular new exhibit in the town called Circlesphere, which will open later this month.
The artwork is a rare example of what is now a dying craft, with only a handful of neon makers in the UK. With trades like ladder making, slate and straw working, neon making is seen as endangered and likely to disappear altogether if urgent action is not taken to preserve it, according to Heritage Crafts. Association (HCA). Daniel Carpenter, COO of HCA, said neon-making skills are a “small but important part of British culture” which, if lost, would be “nearly impossible” to bring back.
“Saving them for posterity is not enough, as they must maintain a continuous lineage of transmission to survive,” he said.
“In addition to having full cultural significance – if valued and invested in – craft skills can become engines of the local economy, tourism, the creation of places and community integration. “
Although the industry is in decline in part due to cheaper alternatives to plastic and LEDs made in East Asia, Wakefield is one of the few places where neon is thriving, thanks to Neon Workshops, a specialist studio. created 10 years ago by artist Richard. The weather. A former student of Tschida, he organized the exhibition to present a different side to the light and gas-filled tubes that Wheater says we tend to associate with “strip joints, sex shops and cheap take out.” .
Wheat said: “[The audience] are going to see neon in a way they didn’t have before. And that’s what art does when it works best, it gets them to look at something differently. That’s why it’s so great to have this platform, just to show people what it can be, how subtle it can be, how meditative it can be.
Tschida, a retired artist and now glass teacher, was instrumental in transforming neon from a craft that primarily provided billboards into an art form in its own right.
Although he has been making neon art since the 1970s, the Wakefield exhibition is significant as this is Tschida’s first time exhibiting his work in Europe.
Wheater said: “His goal is to set the record straight. I think it does him an injustice to say that he’s a neon artist, I think he’s just an artist, a sculptor, and his interest is in light and movement.
Traditionally, every neon sign has been hand-folded by a skilled glassblower working specifically as a neon sign maker. These tubes are then filled with a noble gas and electrodes are added at each end to give the gas an ionizing charge, which produces the glow.
Although popularized in places like Paris and Las Vegas, the first gas-filled neon tube was created in London by British scientists William Ramsay and Morris Travers in 1898. During the first half of the 20th century, West Yorkshire was became the neon-making capital of Europe and will remain so until the beginning of the 21st century.
Now Neon Workshops is picking up the torch, having produced neon artwork that appears in cities across the UK, including at one point a piece installed at London’s Southbank Center, and internationally in countries like Switzerland and Germany.
Wheater and his team are enjoying a slight resurgence of real neon, which, while expensive, is durable – remarkably, the first neon sign ever made in the 1920s still lights up – and one of the forms of lighting. the greenest available, as it consumes little energy and is practically fully recyclable.
Since there has been no formal or established path in neon making since the 1990s, Wheater is keen to pass on his knowledge of the craft. He has an apprentice at Neon Workshops and he also runs classes in Wakefield and London for anyone interested in learning traditional skills.
“There are just so many people on the course,” Wheater said. “You have everyone from priests to long-haul truck drivers. It’s good. A lot of times they come up with really, really cool ideas. “