New Website in Progress!
This is what makes my neon work special.
Some phosphorescent work and NEA Fellowship research findings here.
It all started in the fall of 1985 at the Neo Neon shop in Auckland, NZ. I was there on a one year work visa, thanks to Duncan Reed who I'd met at Dean Blazek's Northern Neon Workshop in Antigo, WI about a half year before. Duncan (a Kiwi) hooked me up because he'd had enough of the slow NZ lifestyle. He had big plans and high hopes for his next stop, Sydney, Australia, and by me taking his glass bending job, I was his ticket out.
One day I was snooping around the shop's glass supply which was totally exotic to me. All I'd ever seen was the USA's industry standard - EGL, FMS, Vorlarc and some old Corning and GE classic colored glass, but here was Masonlite out of England's eye candy with colors I'd never seen before. Waving a SW-UV around the glass stash, I noticed a piece of German (Bromo-purple) tubing. What was remarkable about this was of course its beautiful indigo/magenta color, but more interesting was the phonomena of this tubing's phosphor coating being capable of glowing red with a blue UV light.. Up till then, I'd only seen neon gas make reds, oranges and pinks. Argon and Hg emittid a UV blue light that only lit up "cold " phosphor coated colors like green, blue, yellow, white etc...
But here was a phosphor that went both ways!
This really stoked my curiosity. One thing led to another over the course of the next eight years until the NEA awarded me a fellowship for what is now my signature style that I call "Night Sticks" or "Spirit Antenna" (depending on their use) and well, the rest is history.
Final Report to the National Endowment for the Arts... Everything I learned during my fellowship in one tube!
See Phosphor research items below.
My paint set
...What I'm doing Now...
The Spirit House Odyssey & Exhibits
How it Began…
In the winter of 1993, I traveled to Southeast Asia and stumbled upon all these beautiful little shrines filled with a whole slew of indefinable adornments. I learned they are called “Spirit Houses,” or phi houses. They look like miniature Wat temples or old rustic houses where spirits are coaxed into residing there by offerings of incense, flowers, food and bottles of red Fanta soda. Depending on the quality of the gifts and the spirit’s mood, it will fill your home with ill health, poverty and sadness or hook you up with a great life.
Over the years and several trips to Southeast Asia, I saw many versions of Spirit Houses. Thailand. Laos. Cambodia. Myanmar. As a Westerner, I was struck by each culture’s tradition of honoring nature and their ancestors through these little shrines. Spirit Houses ask us to take a minute and pay our respects to nature, to our past and ask for protection. That’s something we in the West have left behind in our quest for the next big thing.
If you would like to read more about my Spirit House adventure, here is a link to the Spirit House Safari 2007.
Fast Forward to Fall 2008…
I am riding my bike in east Austin and come upon an old house being demolished. I knew it was an E. J. Hofheinz (link to Hofheinz PDF) house. It’s my understanding that Hofheinz built these houses to sell to emancipated slaves. When I saw that backhoe smashing through the walls of this little house, I swear I could hear it crying out in agony. As the boards were being ripped apart, I could feel the generations that made this place their home were collapsing into the dust. The demolished house and the ghosts within were about to be hauled off to the landfill. It dawned on me that by combining my neon art with the materials from this house, I might revitalize the existence of the place and its people. I found a mission. I became a steward of ancestors and nature.
The Hofheinz house inspired the first of the Spirit House Exhibits at Clayworks in 2008.
An Overview of the Traveling Spirit House Exhibit
A ‘spirit house’ exhibit can happen anywhere. It begins with the gathering of random local historical artifacts and photographs, which are displayed in the entryway of a main gallery space. These relics are meant to evoke personal memories of the community.
The rest of the gallery space is dedicated to the “Spirit Houses” made from locally found materials. In some cases, those materials might be broken or rotted wood from collapsed structures. In another instance, it might words from a historical document or photographs. The process, for me, is finding the spirit within the community and bringing it to light. I never know where I will find the spirit until it’s right in front of me.
A neon ‘spirit antenna’ is then cradled inside each of the newly-repurposed materials in order to release and revitalize the spirits locked within. This design creates an ethereal connection between our day-to-day reality and a more subtle dimension where our ancestors and true nature reside. In that merging, there is a movement of time where everything, before and after us, exists. I like what William S. Burroughs says: “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” And, for me, the past comes to light.
Exhibits & Lessons Along the Way
This exhibit was my first opportunity to combine the notion of Spirit Houses from Southeast Asia with the spirits disappearing in the houses of a gentrifying Austin. I used a lot of scavenged material from a collapsed Hofheinz house: square nails; really old ceramic insulators; vividly patterned wallpaper on cheesecloth; layered wood/linoleum/vinyl flooring and rough sawn long leaf pine that dates back a thousand years. Then I built Spirit boxes in which I placed the neon, the spiritual antennae, to wake up spirits within the Hofheinz materials. Spending time making these Spirit Houses compelled me to observe the fear of not mattering when my own ‘house’ collapses.
Made of my neon "Nightsticks" or in this case - "Spiritsticks" encased in now, virtually extinct. long leaf pine from the walls of one of Austin's unique Hofheinz houses that I happened upon at 1000 E. Cesar Chavez in Austin - as it was being demolished "scraped" for gentrifcation...
A Hofheinz house was a very modest house that was built and available for sale to freed slaves after the emancipation.
As I passed this site, I swear I could hear this wood screaming. I stopped and gathered as many boards as I could carry. From these boards, I resurrect a home to fill with special light so as to steward the old spirits.
"Neon for Eliza"
Neon for John Sayles and Maggie Renzi (2015)
"Neon for the Newtons"
Nightstick neon suspended in steel rod spiral.
Diorama - featuring "Swamp Thing"
Neon, fire cut copper, mural by Neil Cronk and topiary by Sandy Boone. Set dressing by Maggie Renzi.
Courtesy: Sandy Boone and Louis Black
"Known for his innovative neon work and the discovery of a new type of neon light, artist Ben Livingston twists and welds neon glass tubing in a crossfire at 1,000 degrees in one of his Austin-area studios.
It’s not just that Livingston dabbles in a number of different arts; it’s that he pursues each one with passion and excels in it. His unique invention of a new kind of neon – the infinite phosphorescent color palate – won him a fellowship with the National Endowment for the Arts. His childlike animated neon sculpture, a cautionary tale about the end of the world, distracted traffic on Fifth Street for 22 years until 2008, and it beat out the Statue of Liberty to win an IES Paul Waterbury International Illuminating Design Award of Excellence.
Examples of Livingston’s artwork are all over the world. In Austin, they hang at the Austin Convention Center, the University of Texas Performing Arts Center and Motorola. Art collectors ranging from Lance Armstrong to Mick Jagger seek out his pieces. His neon mural "Neon Mural #1" still stands as an Austin landmark.
“What makes Ben different is that he thinks out of the box and the universe,” said Pebbles Wadsworth, former director of the University of Texas Performing Arts Center. “He sees colors differently. He looks at problems, beauty, pain and more from a different slant, and a powerful creative force comes out of him that often I feel he has no control over. Ben has no boundaries.”
- Dane Anderson, Westlake Picayune
Roses are Red…Neon art installation at Bass Concert Hall
September 8th, 2010
Austin artist Ben Livingston’s neon masterpiece, “Where the Roses get Red” has been re-installed in the Bass Concert Hall lobby. The piece hung in the lobby prior to the reconstruction. Ben is internationally known as a neon/light sculptor and inventor of an infinite phosphorescent color palette, which glows within his luminous tubes. This discovery won him a fellowship with the National Endowment for the Arts.
Other honors include the Paul Waterbury International Lighting Design Award, where his (home made) animated “Neon Mural #1,” (a downtown landmark from 1986-2008) beat the Statue of Liberty in New York; and his “Confabulating Orbits,” an Austin Art in Public Places commission inside the Austin Convention Center.
Ben is also a successful songwriter/performer who performs regularly in the Austin area.
“Where the Roses get Red” in the Bass Concert Hall lobby can be viewed free of charge Monday through Friday, 11 AM – 2 PM. A map of the campus: TexasPerformingArts.org/visit/maps_directions.
For more information about Ben Livingston, please visit www.beneon.com or www.benlivingston.com.
Ben Livingston's animated mural is glowing, going, gone
PHOTO BY BRET BROOKSHIRE
"It starts with a flower growing; then the house lights up. Then a rocket ship lights up over the flower, and there's a star and a planet, and the ship drops a bomb on the flower – which explodes. Then it all goes black, and the cycle begins again."
That's Ben Livingston, neon artist, talking about the large work of animated images that have brightened the front of his studio off Fifth Street for more than two decades. Soon, he'll be talking about it in the past tense: After 22 years of near-constant display, the electrified mural is coming down.
"My studio's been sold," says Livingston. "And, like the story goes too often here in A-town, yuppies are in, and art is out. I've got to be out of here by May 1, so I have to take the piece down between now and then. Megan Crigger, the manager of Austin's Art in Public Places program, would like to accept it as a donation – because she's interested in having it at Seaholm. So I'm hoping to find someone who'll buy it for that. Which may not be easy – it's been appraised at, uh, quite a bit of money."
Specifically, according to art appraisers C.L. Wysuph & Associates, $90,000.
A nice chunk of change for a bunch of gas and glass, but, of course, it's the inspiration and craftwork, not to mention the interest compounded by history, that make for true value among unique objects fashioned by human hands. The mural – an anti-war statement influenced by the art of Terry Powell, crafted by Livingston and his apprentices John Hayward and Leith Hartell, driven by Frank Roberts' jury-rigged computer program – fairly glows with such value and interest.
"I have some friends who were in town for South by Southwest Interactive, and the taxi driver who brought them over? He said he's been bringing his kids to see the piece for years. And sometimes when people come in from out of town – this guy's been driving for 14 years – they ask him to come here; it's on their list of things they want to see. I guess the image has gotten around: Ellie Rucker had it in the Statesman when it went up; the Chronicle chose it as a Best of Austin in '93; Holt Rinehart's used it in their textbooks. It has a definite history in the city; a lot of kids have grown up with it."
"I'm gonna get one of those trucks that has a sky bucket attached and just start taking it down one piece at a time," says Livingston. "My morale's kind of low right now. It's like going to work with cancer: You just go and do it. If we can't find a buyer, I don't know where it'll go – probably in some friend's garage." He shakes his head and chuckles, trying to look less despondent than he may feel. "This is definitely the unglamorous part of the art world."
- Austin Chronicle
UPDATE - 2014
Neon Mural #1 will be installed in the children's section as part of new Austin Central Library's permanent collection in 2015..