making light

A story by David Johansen

David in his Portland, ME studio, 2017

My relationship with Maine starts as a child, when I spent every Summer in a Maine cottage without any electricity.

The house is filled with the most beautiful light. During the day, it is all natural and reflected off of water. At night, it is created by gas lamps, oil lamps, candles and open fire. Lighting a space takes a bit more effort to achieve, but it pays off with the visual reward of flickering and dancing little flames, glowing coals and a more cozy environment. Outside, the stars and moon shine bright, undiminished by the city’s glow.

After attending college in Florida, I moved out West and learned to make neon lights. Making signage was not my goal. I intended from the start to use neon as an art medium and add it to what I was already doing. For years, I moved about the country making art, continuing my studies and trying to make a living working in neon and a host of other materials. Every Summer, I would return to Maine to recharge myself, and then move on to a new city and a new adventure.

When it became apparent that I should pick a spot to stay for a bit longer and operate a studio of my own for the first time, I had to pick a place to land. I picked Portland because it seemed like it was just big enough to have a niche for me to fit into, but small enough to avoid some of the drawbacks of living in a very large city. Plus, I hoped to be able to spend more time up at camp staring into the fire.

Neon is like my campfire for the city, and making these lights is correlated in my mind with the act of making and tending fires in general.

First, I use flames to heat and bend the glass, blowing air into it as I go. Electricity is used next to heat the whole unit up again and vacuum out every particle of air, water, dust etc. I then fill it with inert gas that can not and will not burn. These noble gases go through no transformation into smoke and ash like wood does, they just glow with pure light. Making neon light is like making fleet fire into solid form. If all goes well, it lights up and lives for decades.

I find great fulfillment from being able to effect my surroundings in a way that both helps local businesses and adds beauty and a sense of life to the city. But it all goes back to making a fire to provide light.

David at neon school in 2003

Bamboo Bugaloo

Ram's head