The Glow Up: Neon & Glass Bending with Meryl Pataky
Fire, gas, glass, electrodes, mercury, and more. I’m used to juggling between my mouse, paintbrush, and pencil at most; but this was a whole new playing field for me. My love for letters extends across all mediums, and the world of Neon is something I’ve always wanted a peak behind the curtains to. Luckily for me, one of my favorite Neon artist was opening her doors for one-on-one workshops. Naturally, I hopped on the opportunity. Meryl Pataky is a neon and mixed media artist based in the Bay Area. I’ve long admired her work ever since I saw her show, "Golden Hour," at the Shooting Gallery, where I saw neon letterforms used in a different light for the first time (pun intended). I’m used to the power of neon signs grabbing our attention to motivate an energetic response, there was a beautiful effect from Meryl’s pieces that inspired attention more introspectively.
At the time, Meryl’s studio was tucked away between big box stores near the Mission; you wouldn’t think there’d be a magical lab hidden between it all.
Meryl greeted me warmly at the entrance. I admired all the materials of glass, metal and dust piled up along the wall as we walked through the space. I would compare these as her version of “sketches” to my piles of paper at home and evidence that there was artist here at work.
I started off by learning the sketching process. Meryl walked me through the neon blue prints, the type of bends used, how to call out those bends, and then dived right through with having me draft my first design - I chose the *simple letter K. But I quickly discovered that this wasn’t going to work out the way I was used to when sketching letterforms. Before I could draw the next mark, I had to think ahead about which bend would help me form the desired outcome best. It was interesting to think about all the possible creative approaches. After deliberating on a couple of options, we landed on one for me to try that was both doable and challenging. When dealing with designing in different forms, it’s important to think about how the medium can dictate the process. I appreciated the shift in process this new medium presented me.
Now comes the moment when my years of experience toasting marshmallows come into play (just kidding). There was a much more delicate balance of precision, speed, and patience to it.
We fired up the ribbon burner.
At first, I felt like I had no control of my limbs, as I tried to juggle between flipping the glass to heat evenly, remembering the direction to bend, and blowing into the hose so that the glass doesn’t collapse.
But with a couple of bends in the works, I slowly got into the rhythm and made my first glass letter! You can see at the top of the K’s arm, where it heated it a bit too long and got deformed. But I'm still super proud of it.
This next part of the process was nothing short of magical. To get the neon to glow and to glow a certain color, we filled the tube with gas. Then with a needle, injected a ball of mercury into it. There is a bit more in-depth explanation of the process here that involves bombarding, cleaning out the tube with electricity, gas types and formulas to create different neon colors, but I wouldn’t be able to do it justice explaining it with words. I would recommend taking a class to see it for yourself!
Here is my final piece all lit up. Unfortunately, my partner broke it while he was cleaning, but the lessons I learned from its process is something I’ll keep with me forever. This also just means I’ll have to make another trip back to make a full word next time! Thank you Meryl for opening up your studio to me. If anyone is interested in taking a class or learning more about her work. You can do so here.
Words and Photos by Kim Van Vu.