The quiet crackling sound of a lamp turning on gives way to the hazy but articulated glow of neon, which has illuminated downtown horizons for over a century. The arc of the neon sign traces scientific advancement through to commercialization, ubiquity, and then nostalgia. Through these phases, neon signs have been given shape and color by the tradespeople who make, install, and maintain them. As I learned in the workshop of Arleigh Schray, a glass bender in Albuquerque, New Mexico, glass bending is a delicate and detail-oriented job, drawing on a blend of scientific knowledge and the feel-by-touch that only comes from practice.
In Flickering Light , Christoph Ribbat describes how, “using their breath, mouths and hands and all their own acquired knowledge and skill… the neon tube brought the handmade object back into the city.” In this way, the hand of glass benders is inscribed on the storefronts and skylines of the communities they work in.
Today most of the glass bending schools that sprouted up in the first half of the twentieth century have closed. But some of those iconic signs remain, and if they continue to remain, they will continue to be repaired, recharged, and remade by people with an increasingly rare set of skills and supplies of hollow glass cylinders and gleaming electrodes.