Shawna Peterson bends glass tubes for a living. She makes neon art, and has put glowing faces on a giant wall of recyclables for artist Erik Otto, bent two-inch circles for a wall sized circuit board for Dolby Labs, and created a sign that simply says “Wash Me” for a San Francisco laundromat. The shining remnants of her past and future projects can be seen scattered throughout her workspace. It lies on the border of Oakland, California, and neighboring Emeryville, just blocks from Pixar Studios in an area dotted with warehouses, workshops, and art studios.
“I prefer Oakland just because it’s an artist community and it’s oriented towards business and light industrial,” says Peterson.
In the cluttered front room of Peterson’s three-room shop sits a clunky old computer monitor with an RGB index on it. Peterson says she prefers the older monitors since, to her eyes, they show colors more accurately. Her workshop goes on like this. Stacks of neon tubes next to hissing flames. Stacks of boxes filled with those four-foot neon tubes. Stacks of designs for future projects.
Peterson has been making neon signs for 30 years. Watching her in the act, her movements are methodical and fluid. She’s so studied, it’s easy to miss the intricacies of the process.
First, Peterson marks where she needs to bend the tube with a graphite pencil and swings that section into the awaiting flame. The glass heats up and grows more pliable; she twists and turns the tube until she feels it’s ready. The tube wants to collapse once she removes it from the flame, but she gives a puff of air through a rubber hose to stabilize it. She bends the now soft tube before placing it on her pattern to check that the lines match up.
Neon patterns are designed in reverse, so all the bends appear on the back of the finished piece. This ensures the design or the lettering on the front appears flat. Peterson doesn’t mind that this technique causes the letters and words in the pattern run backward. “I don’t even look at it like letters. It’s all broken down in my mind as ‘What bend is this,’ and ‘How do I mark it?'”
Peterson moves on to the next bend with ease, purple mad scientist goggles pressed against her face, repeating the process until an “M” appears.
“The tactile nature of neon is pretty important,” she says. “Not only are you handling smooth, hard glass that turns into a wet noodle when you heat it, but you have wood blocks that you use to cool off the glass. We use soft graphite pencils to mark the glass. We use really hard metal files to cut it.”
With three flames continuously burning, her workspace grows noticeably hotter. Peterson’s favorite tool, a wood block that she uses to cool off the glass between bends, is completely blackened after 20 years of use and no longer gives off a smell when it is charred by the glass. However, she has been breaking in a new cherry wood block that gives off a sweet aroma when scorched.
“I have the memories of the smell of a burning pencil from 30 years ago when I was learning. I smell that smell and it’s like, ‘Ah yeah, I remember that.'”
It was a part-time job in college that led Peterson on her 30-year path as a tube bender. After years of sitting behind the front desk of a retail neon shop, Peterson’s boss insisted she take an apprenticeship with the shop’s sign-maker. Upon graduation, she continued working in different neon shops before opening her own operation 19 years ago. Eventually, she settled in her current Oakland shop.
“It was always like my back pocket trade that I mostly stuck with,” she says. “I didn’t really go on to pursue my studies in cognitive science.”
Peterson recently participated in She Bends, an all-female exhibit at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, California. The show runs through February 11, 2018.