Neon in the NEON District: New work by Matt Jacob
–Kathryn Murphy, Program Coordinator and Instructor, Perry Glass Studio
To get inside the minds of some young artists in Hampton Roads, turn your eyes to the rooftop of the Perry Glass Studio. Six children’s drawings served as the inspiration for the latest art installation to illuminate the NEON district. To create the work, Matt Jacob, the Chrysler Museum Perry Glass Studio’s resident neon instructor, used his favorite sketches from children who stopped by the Studio’s drawing station that was in use before the COVID-19 pandemic. “The inspiration to reinterpret these drawings stems from how fearless kids are when they draw and how specific their mark-making is,” he said.
When sifting through sketches from the drawing station, Jacob looked for works full of detail and imagination. There’s something special about the raw, uninhibited stories that children create.
To bring their artwork to the rooftop of the Glass Studio, Jacob used the skills he learned at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. First, he created a neon pattern, a large-scale drawing of each work that is essentially a diagram for making each neon piece. He then followed the pattern, bending the tubing over an open flame into the desired design. After adding an electrode to the open end of each tube, one with a small opening at the end, he connected the tube to a vacuum pump, bombarding system, and gas manifold. Once the tube was vacuumed out, he hooked it up to an electrical transformer to run a high-voltage current through it. This caused the glass to heat to a temperature that would allow the vacuum pump to keep sucking and vacuum out any impurities on the inside of the tube that were released as the glass was heated.
After this electrical bombardment, a gas canister (containing either neon or argon) was slowly opened to fill the tube to a specific pressure. Finally, Jacob applied a small hand torch flame to the tiny opening to seal off the tube, and voila! If an artist follows this process correctly, their artwork will light up when connected to a smaller electrical transformer! Sounds simple, right? Jacob pumps all of his neon tubes at Riehl Deal Neon Signs in Norfolk.
This isn’t Jacob’s first experience with rooftop neon. Two years ago, he was integral in the creation of a 24-foot dragon that found its home atop the Perry Glass Studio. That project taught him the ins and outs of installing neon in the elements. “We learned a lot about proper planning with neon, particularly through the ways in which we failed. Having the electrodes oriented to avoid collecting rainwater and making sure that the backing/install system to the neon is sound are both important aspects. So when working on these pieces, I decided to make the electrode boots all open downwards so they don’t collect water, and I made the support system out of glass and metal instead of wood,” he said.
The neon dragon was unveiled during the 2018 NEON Festival, which is hosted by the New Energy of Norfolk (NEON) Arts District. The annual autumn event celebrates energy, light, and art. The 2020 festival that would have marked the unveiling of Jacob’s work was postponed due to COVID-19. Despite this, the public caught its first glimpse of the piece during a virtual unveiling when the festival would have occurred. It was Jacob’s way of honoring the NEON festival and bringing light and happiness to 2020. (Jump to 3:52 to see the unveiling!)