Thursday, January 5, 2017

Let There Be Light

Two blue flames, each reaching more than one thousand degrees Celsius, converge on a small glass tube. It takes a few seconds before the pinky-width cylinder bursts into an orange flare, like a marshmallow about to char. That’s when Andrew Hibbs begins to work his magic. He spins the glass with his bare fingertips, waving it across the flames to distribute the heat. Then, using a rubber hose that hangs between his lips like a reed, he breathes life into the glass. In one smooth gesture, he curls it up into an arc: the first bend for a neon sign that will eventually read “It was all a dream.” The piece is one of the hundred or so that Hibbs will create this year, each selling for upwards of a thousand dollars.

We are in a nondescript warehouse, tucked away in the scrubby, industrial outskirts of Vancouver. “It’s a bit like a science lab in here, isn’t it?” Hibbs says, offering me a tour. His workbench is covered with sheets of brown tracing paper and archaic-looking drawing tools, which he uses to hand-render patterns for new signs. At the far end is the pumper table: a series of black knobs and dials mounted to a wooden counter with the tops of two neon-filled canisters poking through. In the middle of the shop floor stand three chest-high torches, known as crossfires, where glass tubes are heated and shaped into the sinuous curves neon lights are famous for.

At twenty-nine, Hibbs is an anomaly—a young master of a dying art. He started learning the trade by his father’s side at thirteen, helping out in their backyard workshop. His father showed him how to pump neon into the glass tubes and repair broken signs before slowly teaching his young apprentice the craft of bending. “It takes about five years to get decent at it,” Hibbs explains. He then holds out his hands: scars caused by shattered glass run up and down his fingers. Their tips are polished smooth from repeated burns.

Over the past few years, Hibbs has been leading a neon revival of sorts in Vancouver. His work has been featured by the Juno Awards as well as a host of local media, including Breakfast Television and the Georgia Straight. In 2014, he turned heads with a towering three-storey advertisement for a high-rise beside the Granville Street Bridge that read “Gesamtkunstwerk” (a German phrase meaning “complete work of art”). “It was all a dream,” like much of his work, will be sold to an upscale private buyer.

Hibbs explains that he is one of the few neon sign-makers left in Vancouver. Most, like his father, have reached or are nearing retirement. It’s a far cry from the art’s 1950s glory days, when the city had some 19,000 glowing signs rising above its streets—roughly one for every eighteen residents. At its height, Vancouver reportedly had more neon per capita than New York, Tokyo and even Las Vegas. During that period, dozens of local sign-makers worked overtime to keep up with the demand for bigger, brighter and ever more eye-catching displays. Those days have long since ended.

In recent years, LEDs—cheaper, less finicky and more efficient—have mostly replaced neon in commercial applications. But that’s only part of the story. Neon’s real decline happened decades earlier, when Vancouver’s carnival of lights became the focal point of a bitter aesthetic war that would forever change the city. (...)

By 1940, neon had transformed Vancouver: the city’s dark, wet winters offered a perfect backdrop for its warm, multicoloured glow. Photographs from that era show a metropolis that may look foreign to current residents: gritty streetscapes cluttered with signs and bulletin boards, sidewalks hectic with shoppers and vendors. Granville Street, the heart of the entertainment district, became known as the “Great White Way” for its landing strip of lights that could be seen from blocks away. “As a small city, we were an incredibly urban, vibrant place,” says Atkin. “You would bump into Hollywood stars and all manner of well-known musicians and nightclub performers. The signs encapsulated the exuberance and optimism of that period.”

In the post-war years, Vancouver was home to at least a dozen neon shops, each competing to create ever more outlandish displays: a giant tugboat rocked through waves over the Gulf of Georgia Towing office; the bellows of an antique camera accordioned in and out above a downtown photography shop; a pot-bellied Buddha perched atop the popular Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret nightclub. In those days, neon must have seemed as much a part of the city as the rain itself.

By the early 1960s, anyone driving westbound on Hastings Street would have seen little evidence of that seemingly irrepressible city. Storefronts that previously housed clothiers and jewelry shops were boarded up. Shuttered theatres littered the strip. Streetcars, once the lifeblood of the neighbourhood, were no longer running. Even the storied retailer Eaton’s, the anchor of Hastings’ business district, was struggling—in just a few years, it would move across town to a new mall. One of the only things that hadn’t disappeared were the neon signs.

That decade was a tumultuous time in Vancouver. Middle-class families were moving to the suburbs and other parts of the city, seeking backyards and carports. Plans were being drawn up for an elevated freeway that would slice through the downtown to better serve these new commuters. Neighbourhoods such as the Downtown Eastside became downtrodden. “The life was sucked out of the downtown area,” says Viviane Gosselin, curator of contemporary culture with the Museum of Vancouver. What was left were businesses in seedier areas, she says, and these impoverished pockets soon became associated with neon’s buzz.

Neon, once seen as glamorous, became the emblem of urban decay and was increasingly seen as a beacon for vice. “In a movie, if you wanted to show someone who was down on their luck, you put then in a hotel room, on their bed, in their undershirt, with a flashing red neon sign outside the window,” says Atkin.

Those bright lights had been a way for the young city to assert its prosperity and sophistication. But as Vancouver’s regional population swelled to more than one million residents, its anxieties shifted. Many Vancouverites were less worried about being seen as a big urban centre and more concerned that its man-made excess distracted from the natural beauty of its mountains, ocean and beaches. In 1966, Vancouver Sun writer Tom Ardies opined that the proliferating neon signs were a hideous monstrosity. “They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous,” he wrote. “They’re desecrating our buildings, cluttering our streets, and—this is the final indignity—blocking our views to some of the greatest scenery in the world.”

by Brad Badelt, Maisonneuve |  Read more:
Image: Wendy Cutler/Flickr