TED BONAR makes spaghetti strands of shimmering violet light which blaze and dim at the touch fo a switch. He likes to leave the hardware exposed on his neon sculptures.
Bonar and Larry Kanter bend the light together in an Adams-Morgan art studio. As Neon Projects, they've moved beyond neon's straightforward "Eat at Joe's" values to explore the architectural uses of bent, colored light. In addition to a batch of commercial designs lighting up the 18th Street and Columbia Road corridor, they executed 10 of the works in the Washington Project for the Arts' "Neon Fronts" show glowing at a dozen sites around town.
Beginning today, Neon Projects will participate in an all-neon show at Zenith Gallery called "Luminous Tubes," highlighting the indoor possibilities for neon, once its glare and scale are tamed. Bonar and Kanter will be represented along with four other local artists--Ariane DuBois, Sal Fiorito, Margery Goldberg and Bill Fallon--on the theme of "interior neon, how neon can be viewed domestically," according to Zenith's manager Holly Block. Perhaps the show's farthest leap from highway signage is neon sculpture built into furniture. Neon Projects produced all the works on display.
"Most people are shocked to find out the artists don't do their own works. But look at Rodin," Bonar says. "He had a huge team of craftsmen carrying out his designs." When he's not executing his own designs, Bonar bends four-foot glass tubes over several types of flames to match shapes drawn on asbestos sheets, as specified by artists. "When you get really good you can tie knots in glass," he says. (DuBois, a sculptor and Corcoran School graduate who just finished an apprenticeship with Neon Projects, took four months to start turning out completed pieces. "I'm still on martini glasses and candy canes technically," she says.)
An FTC lawyer by day, Kanter designs pieces and manages the business evenings and weekends. Bonar is a veteran of tedious sign-making work for a Rockville firm and others. "I made Holiday Inn sign after Holiday Inn sign," he says. "I hated it, of course, but was being paid to perfect the craft. It's six months of hell to learn to piece together a word. Now I make breakthroughs all the time, bending in reverse, flipping it over, doing other tricks." Both Bonar and Kanter say they gained knowledge of neon despite the secrecy of older glass benders. There have been no schools to teach the craft since the 1930s, Kanter says, and "the older guys are extremely protective of the alchemy involved."
Bonar is currently experimenting with color variations, using dimmers to change intensity and imported rare glass and wider tubes to lessen the glare. He tries different chemical combinations to achieve new tones, with the range of possible colors hovering around 100. For a pair of wall hangings, he draped neon sculptures in fabrics for a softer glow. Bonar explains that the process works on the same principle as lightning: The shaped tubes are hooked up to a vacuum pump, a giant transformer heats the whole piece to purify the inside, and then it's filled with gas. When electrically charged, neon gas glows red-orange. With argon it shines lavender. An injection of mercury yields blue. Colored or phosphorescent-coated glass rods produce a range of 30 shades, all strangely energy efficient, consuming less energy than florescent lights. The end product can last 30 years or more. "Usually it's broken before it burns out," Bonar adds.
Eventually, he says, he'd like to teach. He cringes but doesn't rule out a retail sideline of "gift neon--rainbows and ice cream cones" for a steadier income. In the meantime, Neon Projects is cranking out commercial logos, two designs for an architect's office and one for a Georgetown residence. "There's nothing wrong with being commercial," Kanter says, "but that doesn't mean I'll crank out rainbows and 'Ed's Place' over and over again. It would take away energy."