Not a lot of people work with neon anymore, but Brett Berres has found his calling in the medium.
After detouring from graphic design to sculpture while studying at ASU about nine years ago, he heard about a class on neon art being taught nearby at Graham’s Neon. The namesake of the shop, Larry Graham, has made a living at it for more than 30 years and is best known for restoring the iconic 1960s-era Diving Lady sign from the Starlite Motel in Mesa.
Berres never looked back. For the past five years, he’s worked with Graham at Mesa-based Electric Sign Specialists, where he uses the noble gas to create everything from advertisement signs and illuminated cabinets to parking lot lighting and abstract sculptures. We recently caught up with the neon artist to learn more about creating with gas and his favorite neon artists.
Phoenix New Times: What do you like about working with neon?
I like that it has hardly changed since it originated. It's like a dance with many steps to master. You can mess up at any part, and it will throw the whole thing off. From designing, bending, to fabrication in its final placement, any one step can throw off the others. Of all the different art forms, I think it's one of the most satisfying to stare at.
What are some of the differences between neon advertising and neon art?
The main difference will be that neon artists can take liberties that most neon advertising cannot. Using colors that give a dim effect or color is no good for advertising. Neon art gives a freedom that I love. I do not necessarily need to start with a pattern. Maybe it is more of a shape in my head. There will always be advertising that blends with neon art just because of the nature of the process. Some signs from the early ‘50s and ‘60s are so big and extravagant, but even a single glass unit illuminated by a transformer on a wall is the same process from start to finish.
What are some of your favorite neon works?
There are so many incredible artists and sign craftsmen and women out there right now. Nate Sheaffer blows my mind with his use of electronics and neon to do incredible pieces and installations that react with music and even physically spin. Tory DiPietro is always making statement pieces and rainbows that shake the world and get copied across the globe. There are tons of incredible neon artists showcasing on Instagram. I encourage a look.
What's it like working with Larry Graham at Electric Sign Specialists?
I feel lucky to have Graham's Neon be where I work. I love neon, and I get to enjoy it every day. Larry has been making neon signs almost as long as I have been alive and has been in the same location for over 20 years. I have worked with him for over five years now, and I am still very much the new guy at the shop. We are a real family-owned small business, operating with only five employees at most any given day. I feel lucky to have found neon and work with it daily. I am rarely doing the same thing two days in a row, so I like that, and we are one of the last places in the Valley that even works with neon signs at all.
Did you help with the restoration of the Diving Lady sign?
I started working at the shop shortly after the restoration of the Diving Lady. Since then, we have restored more than one antique sign from even earlier than the Diving Lady. There are a couple signs at the Casa Grande Sign Park that I personally worked on, spending hours scrubbing layers of different old paints off the surface of porcelain signage, peeling back the years, and being able to read different businesses that occupied the same location and never changed the shape or faces of the original neon sign. That ultimately allowed us to restore the sign to brand-new condition 50-plus years later.
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