By Anita Malhotra
Neon artist Lisa Schulte has been creating neon for events and films in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, earning her the moniker “The Neon Queen.”
Hired to create a futuristic city for a special event at the Pacific Design Center for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she went on to fashion neon pieces for many Hollywood films, including many in the Batman series, as well as for countless music videos, TV shows, fashion shows and special events.
Her company Nights of Neon specializes in custom manufacturing of new neon works and has produced over 10,000 custom-built pieces of neon available to rent, one of the largest collections in the world.
Ten years ago, Schulte began creating her own personal artistic works in neon, pushing the boundaries of the medium by working in unconventional ways, including with natural materials.
Her most recent works, in a new style featuring an explosive synthesis of bright colors, shapes and text, are currently on display at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Schulte at her studio and showroom in Van Nuys, Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2017.
AM: How did you first get interested in art and in neon in particular?
LS: I was always interested in art when I was growing up but I came from a family that didn’t think that you could actually pursue a career in the field of the arts, so I was not encouraged to do it. Now my father is very proud of me that I did not listen to him and continued to pursue art.
I always had a fascination with light from my earlier days. I was a lightboard operator in nightclubs and I designed and controlled the lighting system for the dance floor.
So at that early age of about 19 I became very fascinated with light and started to focus in on one particular light source, neon. Even though neon’s been around for hundreds of years in one form or another, it wasn’t really being used outside of signage. So to bring it into a nightclub atmosphere and get creative with it was the beginning of my experience with light.
AM: Where was that?
LS: It was in San Diego, California.
AM: You had an injury to your eye when you were a child. Did that influence your interest in working with light?
LS: I think it was a very unconscious thing. I was shot in the eye with a BB gun by my brother. At the time they didn’t have very good advancements in eye surgery so they put patches over both my eyes for several months in fear that the BB was still located inside my eye and may travel to the brain and give me a blood clot. I lived in darkness for three to four months and also with the fear of possibly never being able to see out of that eye again.
The moment of being able to see again and without having to wear patches and the moment of light hitting you when you’ve lived in complete darkness was such a powerful and joyous feeling I think it did have something to do with me going into the nightclub and deciding, “This is what I want to do – I want to control those lights.”
I still have a lot of problems with my eye. I have to have laser surgeries all the time to relieve the pressure, so it is such a joy 50 year later to see light. I’ve created my own world of light around me. And shaping and bending light is a pretty powerful feeling.
AM: When did you create your first neon?
LS: I decided I wanted to seriously take this on in the early ‘80s. I couldn’t really communicate to the sign companies what I wanted. I was dealing with a bunch old men that were used to making subway signs or Nike signs, and here I come along as this young kid wanting to do three-dimensional shapes and things that run on batteries.
I was hitting walls left and right and I felt like I needed to learn how to bend it. It wasn’t an easy thing. There were no schools like there are now. So I found this guy in Salina, Kansas that was a master tube-bender and asked him if he would be interested in letting me study under him. He agreed and I went and learned by a really great master.
AM: How is a work of neon made?
LS: The actual bending of the neon starts with a straight piece of glass four or five feet in length and you follow a paper pattern – every place that you see a curve or a bend or a 90 degree angle. You create your design in your head, put it on paper, then you scan it. I have a large plotter that prints it out if I want to go 40 feet or four feet. What I do is very costly and very time-consuming so there’s very little room for error.
AM: It can be dangerous as well.
LS: Yup, I have burns all over my hands. The glass is super hot and sometimes you get distracted and you touch it. When you commit to bending something you need to stay focused and stay on track with it. 14,000 volts go through that tube to purify it, which is twice as much as the electric chair. You deal with a little bit of mercury, you deal with fluorescents, there’s a lot of elements that need to come together. There is no short-cut. It’s very scientific and every step definitely needs to be followed to assure longevity on the tube.
AM: Tell me about how your company was formed.
LS: My first major event was the Olympics. I did several events where I created futuristic cities. I started creating environments for fashion shows, music videos and special events in Los Angeles. The creativity that I was bringing to music videos or parties in Hollywood was very fresh and nobody had really done that before. I’d do one and then somebody would call me for another and another and another. So it started to build, and I formed my company, Nights of Neon.
I have to give credit to having my company for so many years and getting to do a different job every single day, whether it was for Warner Brothers or Paramount, and working with the best of the best in the industry, whether that be Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen.
I’ve always been pushed to do the impossible with neon and I’m that personality where nothing has scared me. Having the company and the type of clientele that I’ve worked with over the years has raised my level of creativity because I’ve been surrounded by enormous talent.
AM: What were some of the projects you did with Nights of Neon that you are most proud of?
LS: Some experiences that were super memorable were when I worked with Spielberg on the movie Artificial Intelligence, which was a Stanley Kubrick screenplay originally. Because Kubrick had already passed away, Steven wanted to honor his vision. You were trusted to create these worldly environments where the sky was the limit, and had the time and the money and the resources and the creative people around you that gave you the trust until you got those worlds.
And then working with Schumacher on the Batman series – with big budgets again – and working with creative directors that have enormous visions.
AM: What are you currently working on?
LS: I’m working with Christian Dior – a pop-up for Rodeo Drive. I did stuff for Daft Punk for the Grammys. Over the weekend there were all these private parties around town and pop-up events at Maxfield that I did. And I’m working on a new show called The Perfect Pitch. It’s kind of like The Voice – I’m creating some signage for them. And yesterday I worked on the television show Mom. Every day I get to work on some pretty amazing things.
AM: When did you start doing your personal artistic work in neon?
LS: Ten years ago I decided to pull away from my company and let the people I have here run it, and spend more like 70 percent of my energy creating my own design, showing my work at museums and galleries, getting representation and becoming very serious about being a fine artist.
My own work creatively is so different – like the wood series, that’s something you would never probably ever see. Trying to combine organic materials with neon and find a marriage.
AM: How did you first start working with wood?
LS: I had a beach house for 10 years and every day I would take two or three walks with my dogs. I would make sure I got out there when the tide was low because of the treasures that the ocean would bring up, whether it was beach glass or wood or whatever else. I just started collecting.
That was pretty cathartic for me because I was struggling with turning 50 – feeling less sexy, less cute. Walking on the beach and really taking a look at that piece of wood on the filthy, wet sand I related to it because I felt the beauty is going to go away, and people have to reach in and really listen to you and get to know you. So I brought the wood home, I’d let it dry out, I’d clean it up, I’d sand it, and then I’d have this gem.
And then I wanted to shine a light on it – like look at this beauty, something that normally we would just pick up or throw back in the ocean, or step on and crush.
I think the combination with three-dimensional neon was challenging, because three-dimensional neon bending is not done with a paper pattern. You are bending to the wood, which is a whole different concept. I felt the marriage was beautiful.
AM: Some of your neon work involves words. How do you get your inspiration for these phrases?
LS: I’m not really good at expressing words, but I think of them. And it’s pretty nice to have this ability to put them in lights and not necessarily have to say them. I am a very introverted type of person. I was a middle child so I didn’t say much, so I have remained pretty quiet and shy.
I get inspiration from my friends too. One of the pieces I did is called, “I Live in Denial.” He’s a screenplay writer and was always living in denial about his work, and it was really hard for me to let him know, so I just made it in neon for him.
Even when I’ve been in relationships, instead of giving real flowers I’ll do a 10-foot rose and send it over to the person. It’s been fun to be able to use it in that fashion because it is a bit over the top but can also be very sexy and subtle and intimate.
AM: Tell me about your most recent work.
LS: I have a museum show going on. It’s totally different from what I’ve been working on in the last five years. It’s very abstract, very colorful.
This last body of work was more from my unconscious and I just let it happen. It’s the first time I’ve let my ego go. It brought me back to when I first started – the freedom I had without having to live up to this bar of, you’re at the top of your game, this pressure of these people you work for, and “perfection, perfection.”
AM: Can you describe the process of making it?
LS: I had a show in Austin and had taken all the wood pieces with the white neon and came back disappointed. Not that art is about selling your work, but it does validate you. I came back really angry that everybody loves my work, everybody thinks it’s the best neon they’ve ever seen, but it’s not translating into sales.
I just started grabbing the neon I have in my studio from my company – 30 or 40 words that were already made – and shoving them on to a pedestal, upside down, backwards, vertical, horizontal. I made the sculpture and I was like, “Let’s encase that in plexiglass.”
And then I took a bunch of shapes and I started throwing shape on top of shape on top of shape, and lit it up. Then I took 30 pieces of straight lines of neon I had just made – like a pick-up stick pile, just random. I didn’t care about color, I didn’t care if it was six feet or eight feet. I created five sculptures in one day. The anger had disappeared from my body and I felt like, “That was really organic.”
I felt like I had a breakthrough and a museum came by to see my work. They were like, “Wow!” They got rid of somebody in a show to put me in it. I was kind of shocked, but I was like, “Okay, that’s the real me.” It was the easiest show I’ve ever created.
I think that is what artists search for – that unconscious, where your hands are just doing it. I really think my ego was getting in the way of my art. And I think it comes from having my company and having to be so perfect.
When you work for Chanel or Nike or the people I work for in my day job, there is no room for error. You need to be spot-on, you need to be perfect, you need to be the best. Now I’m free to do whatever I want to do and I’m not judging myself anymore.
AM: Are you working on any other projects right now?
LS: I just installed that show and had my opening on Saturday and I’m still digesting the body of work. I have some ideas of where I want to go with what I’ve started here but again I feel like it needs to be very organic. I don’t want to use my normal method this time around.
AM: In one of your interviews you were quoted as saying, “The world is in need of illumination.” What did you mean by that?
LS: Especially in these times today – very dark times we’re living in – to be able to bring light to dark times. We can’t exist in the world without light. So to be a light bearer in this world, to have a torch, to shine some light – if I can bring a little bit of that to what I think is a pretty dark place, and seems to be getting darker and scarier. We have to have light. It’s one of those essentials. I feel pretty fortunate to be someone who gets to work around it every single day of my life and share it.
Lisa Schulte’s neon art is currently on display in the show “Movers and Makers,” which runs until April 16, 2017 at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, Los Angeles. For more information about Lisa Schulte and her work, please visit her at lisaschulteneonartist.com, nightsofneon.com, or on Instagram at theneonqueen.