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By Randall Caba
Fortunately, as a former ASE certified auto mechanic, I learned that good came from sharing skills and experiences and developing methods of member qualification. Unfortunately in neon, I learned that its knowledgeable members often shunned sharing information and were reserved in efforts to organize. Their response was commonly separatist, even competitive. Perhaps during their apprenticeship, this was the response offered to them and maybe it was necessary for survival. But today, we face a competitor larger than just the guy down the street.
Today neon has lost much of its novelty and its profitability. And now new products threaten to displace it. Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) advance into channel letters, a domain once commanded by neon. Eventually bright, inexpensive and programmable Light Emitting Polymers (LEPs) may dislodge neon from window and Point of Purchase signs. Now may be the time to rethink defensive attitudes to curb neon from possible demise and to grip our place in it.
Where is the training?
Some claim you can walk into a neon shop and say, “I want to become a neon glassblower.” But I say, “Don’t expect a warm welcome.” Not even if you offer to pay well for the education. Too many glassblowers know from experience that sign shops are quick to replace or job-shuffle their tubebenders as little loyalty exists. And even if one does land a watching spot at the bending table, prepare to learn by watching over a concealing shoulder. Why should a journeyman be willing to share their hard-earned skills? Most guard their craft well.
Now, I know that some large shops take on a select few wannabes and train them. But most come from within the company and are trained for company purposes. For many aspirant craftsmen only the school of hard knocks is readily available, teaching one’s self through books, videotapes and magazine articles then fighting for a spot in the marketplace.
Some neon schools are at least State sanctioned but others are small sign shops that offer graduates limited training and modest credentials. A select few offer college level instruction. The Northwest Technical College in Minnesota offers a nine-month program, 36 college credit hours, with a diploma upon completion. The course covers computer concepts, career search, bending block and script letters, producing patterns and sculpture, production bending, bombarding and transformers, indoor and outdoor neon, cost analysis and first aid. You can find out more about their program online at www.ntc-online.com or by calling 1-877-SEEK-NTC.
At the university level, the University of California at Berkeley offers a course in neon-illuminated sculpture. Christian Schiess, renowned neon artist and author of “The Light Artist Anthology,” instructs the class over fifteen Saturdays. The introductory course offers students the chance to complete two neon projects. An intermediate course further builds upon these skills where students make three or four neon art projects.
At the University of California in San Diego, neon guru, Ron Carlson offers beginning and intermediate neon classes as well as a unique non-instructional neon studio membership. Here supervised students use the facility during off time to further their skills and develop projects. For more information, go to www-crafts.ucsd.edu/brochure/neon.html#studio
What we can do
For any industry to grow strong, its members must educate and qualify upcoming consorts. It’s the path taken by the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), the UAW (United Auto Workers), the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and many other organizations. Each built a trade on professional ideals then protected their members through organized professionalism. Unfortunately, the neon trade remains fraught with guarded secrets and its newest members often languish in neglect.
Is it too late to protect the neon trade? I discovered an extensive yet partial list of individual trade unions in the United States at www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/union/namer/usa.htm. Now, why the interest in a trade union? Because a trade union organizes and mobilizes its members. It organizes them into a profession then mobilizes them to protect their interests. Ever try to tear a phone book in half? It’s easy one page a time but almost impossible when those pages are bound together.
For too long, neon members have worked disconnected, fragmented by competition and fear. Will we rely upon another overwhelming wave of neon interest to propel our status-quo trade forward? Or are we counting on our trade secrets to protect us? Will we communicate and organize into a body of professionals? Or will we allow novel, high-tech products to knock us from our teetering post? The future of our trade is made up by the choices we make today.
LIST OF NEON SCHOOLS (contact each for latest information):
ACADEMY OF ART COLLEGE
AMERICAN SCHOOL OF NEON
BOSTON CENTER FOR ADULT EDUCATION
BRISTOL SCHOOL OF NEON
BRITISH SCHOOL OF NEON
DACO NEON SCHOOL
DUTCH NEON SCHOOL
ED WALDRUM SCHOOL OF NEON
HOLLYWOOD SCHOOL OF NEON
MAX NEON SCHOOL
MINNEAPOLIS COLLEGE OF ART
MUSEUM OF NEON ART
NATIONAL NEON INSTITUTE
NEON Trade School
NEW YORK CONTEMPORARY GLASS CTR
NORTH TEXAS NEON SCHOOL
NORTHERN WISCONSIN NEON WORKSHOP
NORTHWEST INDIANA SCHOOL OF NEON
NORTHWEST TECHNICAL COLLEGE
PARSONS SCHOOL OF DESIGN
PENLAND SCHOOL OF CRAFTS
TECNOLUX SCHOOL OF NEON
UCSD CRAFTS CENTER
UC BERKELEY EXTENSION
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