The art of neon brought to light What artist learned in six months she can teach in hours


You've seen her work up in lights from the loping 80-foot pink wave gracing the BWI Sheraton to the animated representation of a home run in the film "Major League II."

Although her creations have won her praise, neon artist Haley Ryane does more than just practice her art. The 32-year-old has turned her studio, Savage Neon in Oella, into one of eight studios in the country offering a comprehensive course in neon creation.

"People don't really know that neon is available as a hobby. It's not really advertised that way," the studio owner said.

To make neon more accessible to hobbyists, Ms. Ryane gives daylong workshops to teach the basics.

Many professionals think it takes years of apprenticeship to master the skill of neon bending. But Ms. Ryane has developed a technique so students can create a very simple piece in one day or achieve tube-bending skills worthy of a professional in about six weeks.

It took Ms. Ryane much longer to learn. Fresh out of the Philadelphia College of Art with a degree in industrial design, she was searching for a job. While looking in the phone book under "design," she found a listing for neon design.

"I called up and said, 'I want to design your neon,' " she recalled. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into. He told me that those who design it usually know how to make it. The moment I found out that neon was made by hand, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do."

So off she went to a neon school in Kansas City, Mo. "The way I was taught actually I was really just shown what to do, not really taught so it took me six months to really get comfortable with it," she said.

Now, "I can tell people in a couple of hours what I did in six months. I had to almost invent a language to say what to look for, what you should even be thinking before you do the bend," she said.

Her technique seems to be working. In the two years since she began teaching, she has trained about 30 hobbyists and 12 professionals. About half the professionals now work for sign companies, and half own their businesses.

Former student Mike Vinzant of Sparks is renting space in Ms. Ryane's studio until he can set up a shop in a converted barn. "I learn things from Haley every day," said Mr. Vinzant, who turned to neon after years as a grape grower for a local winery.

The spacious studio in the former Dickey Mill is neat, but funky. The wood-floored room is brightened by 12-foot-high windows and exposed brick that has been painted fire-engine red. And there is plenty of neon a larger-than-life toucan, little red hearts, a bright blue "Haley" and a display of all 40 colors of neon that Ms. Ryane carries.

In one corner, aspiring neon artists practice bends on the four workbenches. The steady "schhhhh" of burning natural gas occasionally is punctuated by the exclamation of a student who has broken glass.

Creating neon has changed little since the lighting was introduced in 1910 by Georges Claude, a French inventor.

First, a reverse image of the design is drawn and fixed to the top of the work area. The glass is heated over a flame at the point where a bend is desired, then bent to match the pattern. Once the bending is complete, metal electrodes are spliced to each end of the piece. One electrode has a small vent through which the air in the glass tube is partially evacuated with a vacuum pump.

The tube then is cleansed by attaching the electrodes to high voltage about 18,000 volts, roughly the same voltage used to execute condemned criminals. When the glass reaches about 450 degrees and the electrodes are red hot, the voltage is turned off and the vacuum draws out loosened impurities and the remaining air.

Then the tube is filled with an inert gas, usually neon or argon, and sealed. It is wired to a transformer that provides about 2,000 volts to the electrodes, and the voltage causes the gas to ionize and glow brightly.

Different colors of light are achieved by altering the process. "Neon makes red light," Ms. Ryane explained. "Argon makes blue light. Different colors like greens and pinks are created using one of the two colored gases and different phosphorus coatings."

The art of neon is in the bending. Once it is bent, it cannot be redone.

"It happens so quickly," Ms. Ryane said. "One bend takes 10 seconds and there may be a hundred things going on in that time. I tell students to treat it like a puzzle, look for one or two things at a time and feel free to experiment instead of focusing on achieving a perfect bend."

Bending is the focus of Ms. Ryane's one-day workshop, "Wiggles, Squiggles and Zigzags." For $150, students come away with their own neon creations.

Jack Fruehstorfer of Butler ended the course with several working pieces. Most were a conglomeration of practice bends, curves and splices. But he was proud to also have made a small, albeit crooked, neon heart.

"It was much harder than I thought it was going to be. But Haley did a good job describing what to look for, like how to know when the tube is ready to bend and how to keep the bend from pinching," he said.

Such remarks please Ms. Ryane. "I like seeing people getting results," she said. "And I like helping them do what they want."

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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