Neon art's a gas for Will Sherwood

By Joe Burns
BANNER STAFF - Provincetown (Mass) Banner 19 Sept 1997

For decades, neon has been the sign of the times. Boldly lighting the night with an array of shocking pinks, cool blues, tropical greens, and oven-range reds, neon advertising transformed America's palette and influenced the development of a variety of artistic mediums. Its most direct connection has been neon art. Applying the same technology as their commercial counterparts, neon artists have moved the medium in the opposite direction.

"This is absolutely nothing like neon signs," says neon sculptor Will Sherwood, whose "Abstract Strokes" exhibition will be at Walker's East Gallery, 153 Commercial St., through Sept. 28, with an opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow.

"What attracts me is that most art is reflective ... but neon is its own light source, and for me the colors and the possibilities of luminescence from a neon piece is very intense for me," Sherwood says.
"I can just stare at a neon piece ... for hours. Just the glow of it, just like ultra-violet posters attract people ... because they're sort of glowing. Plus the possibilities on so many dimensions. With oils and acrylics, it's just a painting, you can just do so much with it. In neon, it's not just the color, it's the way you form the glass, the way the phosphors appear inside the glass, the way the light's given off, all these many variable aspects lend to quite a rich palette of possibilities."

While neon sign makers strive for uniformity and consistency in their creations, Sherwood seeks imperfection. "I'm not after the perfect letter. The more imperfect it is for the commercial neon sign industry, the more artistic it is for me," he says. "So anytime there's what the commercial industry would call a mistake, often it is a real attraction. ... What I'm after is finding those variations and all the possibilities that are esthetically pleasing and speak to me."

A managing engineer at Digital Equipment Corporation, an organist/choirmaster at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, a classical and jazz pianist; and a photographer who will be showing at Provincetown Group Gallery in October, Sherwood has found neon sculpture to be a medium that combines all of his talents and interests ."I'm as excited by the artistic and esthetic aspects as I am the technical aspects because a major things that drives me are first learning about the technical possibilities," he says.

Sherwood became interested in neon art several years ago after visiting his friend, noted neon sculptor, Ben Livingstone, in Austin, Texas. "I visited him on several vacations and got hooked ... on it [and] built my own shop," he says.

The term "neon art" is misnomer, since neon is one of the less frequently used gasses used in neon art. Argon, which gives off a lavender light when excited, and xenon, which emits white-gray glow, are more commonly used.

"The neon orange color is so overpowering, there's not much more that you can do with it ... where as xenon and argon are more subtle," Sherwood explains.

The gasses are only one of four major components that make up a work of neon art. The other ingredients are electricity, provided by a transformer; glass tubing; and phosphor, powders the consistency of sugar or corn starch, that are applied to the inside of the tubing. White in normal light, phosphors, when placed in a tube that is being excited by an ionized gas, luminance a wide range of colors, which is determined by the chemistry of the powder.

"The phosphors provide for me the most variable or expansive part of the art aspects," Sherwood says.

Unlike commercial applications that aim for a smooth, even covering Sherwood seeks a certain spontaneity in all aspects of his art.

"I'm after textures and moods more like an airbrush, a blown wispy cloud-type effect," he says. He gets that effect by blowing the phosphors through the tube creating what he describes as a sandy, nebula or galaxy effect, or mixing them into a liquid, resulting in dripping patterns inside the tube.

Sherwood also achieves spontaneity in his sculptures by using a type of electric transformer that allows for beads or bubbles that flow randomly through the tube. "That's considered a mistake in commercial [neon]. ... It's a characteristic unintentionally created by the transformer." An example of that effect can be found in "Waves" one of several pieces that Sherwood has hung at Walker's Wonders prior to his opening, and the only preview piece using neon gas.

Unlike old-fashioned neon signs that required an electrical connection at both ends, modern neon pieces use solid state transformers that plug into wall outlets or can be plugged into a car, and produce anywhere from three to 15,000 volts. Voltage depends upon length of tube, type of gas and other factors. The need for a transformer at only one end of the tube has dramatically opened up the artistic possibilities. "That's very exciting for me because then you're not constrained to the topology of having to come back to complete the circuit," Sherwood says.

The clear glass tubing, which Sherwood purchases in four foot-long, half-inch diameter units. The tubes can be made as flexible as a garden hose by heating them for a couple of minutes until they become soft like pulled taffy and molded into shapes as simple as the logo-like line of "Waves" or as complex as the amphibian-shaped "Quadrapus."

"While a glass tube is still heated you can add air pressure or vacuum with your blow hose to make it a larger diameter or smaller diameter [at various points to create distortions in shape]," Sherwood says. An example of this technique can be seen in a piece called "Pimples and Dimples."

Sherwood says that another intriguing aspect of neon is being able to use it to create environmentally interactive pieces. Sherwood cites as example an eight-foot tall piece created by a Boston sculptor for a Florida strip club. "It had jetlets of ionized gas floating in it and depending on where you touched it, the light stream would come to you. ... The dancers would get up to it and nuzzle up to the thing and the body parts would be illuminated and interact with the plasma."


about Will Sherwood