Church of Light

James White, 57, longtime Arizona State University sculpture professor, creates humorous and whimsical works that incorporate his custom bent tubes of neon light. White's sculpture often presents playful ideas that result from his daily interactions with his beloved students and sprightly preteen daughter. The Tempe studio is more like Dad's garage workshop than artist's studio, with tools lining the walls and chaotic pieces of metal, wood and electronics sprawled on every surface. Old framed Popular Science covers hang alongside illustrated posters of bat and trout species normally found in elementary-school classrooms. On a warm fall day, White's black miniature schnauzer prances into the studio as his daughter brings us the tastiest fresh-squeezed limeade.

Get lit. All visual artists deal with light, whether it's reflected light or emitted light. When it's emitted, you can just supercharge it and you get people's attention right away. You can have a piece in a show with all this other art, and it just shines. And once you have someone's attention, then you're able to have that conversation with them — that is art. What's really sad is when someone gets your attention and they don't have anything to say.

Permission granted. Every once in a while, I would have neon made, and then during the centennial celebration of ASU there was an opportunity to write some grants, and I wrote a grant to borrow or to rent some neon equipment and work with it with our students. Since then we've had other donations. This is the 21st year that we've been making neon. We're one of maybe three universities that have it within their art department.

Heard, not seen. I don't exhibit a lot here in town because the university — well, they're supportive, but it's not a big deal. They're more impressed when I exhibit nationally or internationally. So actually, just as ASU has a better reputation nationally or internationally than it does here in town, I think I have the same. I mean, everyone knows who I am when it comes to neon, but I don't know people — I'm not sure my neighbors know, except they hear me.

Professor White. It's bam, bam, bam, all day. Totally exciting, but nothing I'm prepared for. I mean, many times I'm driving out of the parking lot and someone's walking beside my car talking to me. And I'm not complaining about that — I get a lot out of that. Don't tell ASU, but I would do it for free.

Word of God. We had some Saudis come in who wanted to open a gallery in Saudi Arabia, and we started shipping work over there. It was odd because they saw it in a whole different light. Because they didn't have beer signs and they didn't have "girls, girls, girls totally nude" signs. So they saw this as a God kind of thing — saturated — like we look at stained-glass windows — that same intense light. So mostly we were doing prayers in neon, you know, in Arabic text, which is nuts to try to do in neon. So we were trying to do these — and we would mess them up and they would say, "Oh, that's all right, everyone knows that prayer. They don't even read it, they just look at it."

Only a flesh wound. We've never had anyone have stitches. You don't know you're cut. You just see red sometimes, or someone will try to wipe the table with their hand and get the glass in their hand. And then they'll usually — if they're not careful — they burn themselves because they're heating glass on torches. It doesn't seem to be any big problem. It's safer than cooking.

Shock the monkey. We had a girl who I'd explained how this electricity could hurt you on this big transformer we use for bombarding. It was fresh in her mind, and she touched one of the little transformers and shocked herself. It was just, I mean, it was really nothing, but it was so fresh in her mind she wet her pants.

Dearly beloved. Next week I'm marrying two of my old students. In fact, one of the students, Jason Chakravarty, who's in the show — he's one of the other artists. I married him last year, him and his wife. I got ordained and we started the Church of Light. I'm Reverend White, Church of Light.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi