For 30 years, artist Shawna Peterson has toiled away on a very unique art form: she bends glass tubes and turns them into amazing neon signs. Peterson lives in the working-artist mecca of Oakland, with a three-room studio that is just blocks from animation giant Pixar. As a one-woman show, Peterson is radically different than the animated icon, but her art is no less potent.
Peterson came upon her career almost by accident. She spent years as the receptionist at a neon sign shop. Eventually her boss insisted she learn the art form. After completing an apprenticeship, Peterson went to work at several different sign-makers until she was ready to open her own studio 19 years ago. She is a master of fabricating and apprenticed with the top notch glass blower, R.J. Wells. Peterson works at least 40 hours a week for commercial clients. She also enjoys making her own art pieces, in order to keep the creative juices flowing.
Working from the East Bay, Peterson recently did a series which used discarded liquor store signs and ancient shopping carts, which she turned into stand-ins for addiction and homelessness. The shopping carts signify the way that homeless people use the cart to move their stuff around town, to collect recyclables, or to contain everything they own. The thought-provoking series also explores the impact of addiction on homelessness.
Peterson’s commercial clients include The Gap, Safeway, Starbucks, Payless Shoesource, Miller Brewing, and Hollywood Video. She also makes furniture, often incorporating old signage into the furniture. She also enjoys using old sign fragments and combining them with new neon.
The process of creating neon art combines the artistry of glass blowing with the precision of a painter. When Peterson is working, there are three flames constantly burning in her workspace. Although the number of neon signs has drastically decreased because of the rise of LED, it is still an art form worth celebrating. And like many other crafts, neon art is poised to make a comeback.
People who make neon are known as benders. When a bender forms a word, they are literally bending the word from one continuous tube of glass – an incredible feat. The tubes are then filled with inert gas. The color comes from the way the electric current hits the electrodes in the tubes. The electrons flow right through the gas, making its atoms glow.
One of Peterson’s biggest projects was the restoration of the neon Castro sign in San Francisco. It was an enormous project that has reinvigorated the facade of a historic building.
Peterson is currently part of an all-female exhibit at the Museum of Neon Art, which is located in Glendale California. The Museum, known as MONA, also sponsors nighttime tours of historic landmarks with neon signs.
She Bends celebrates women neon artists, and their work exudes power, grace, beauty, femininity, empowerment, and pure artistry. The exhibit will last until February 11, 2018. Peterson also teaches tube-bending classes in her workshop for those who are inspired by this rare art.