By: Mary K Cantrell
The guy at the light bulb shop warned me that neon sign benders were “kind of off” – that “something about the gasses” made them crazy.
Weeks later, my inbox bings. A new message from firstname.lastname@example.org awaits. It’s Austin-based neon artist Ben Livingston, who is just the man I hoped to find.
When I arrive at his South Austin home for an interview, he leads me out back where everything is surrounded by wild, unkempt plants. The funky bungalow features a tiny wooden bridge connecting his house and studio.
Ben boasts a number of impressive accolades. He has a permanent installation at Bass Concert Hall titled “Where the Roses Get Red” and won a National Endowment for the Arts for his creation of the phosphorescent palette, an array of phosphorescent minerals he uses to illuminate neon tubes. Ben has also designed neon for Mick Jagger, Austin City Limits, and the Chicago Botanical Garden.
His small shop is in disarray; glass tubes clutter the surfaces and walls. Ben re-arranges his band equipment, then apologizes for the mess. The hodgepodge of equipment is understandably the result of a massive downsize – Ben used to own a studio on 5th Street until it was sold in 2008.
“Are you scared of fire?” he asks me. “Uh….no?” I reply. He promises to let me fire up the equipment later to give glass blowing a try.
Ben is absurdly creative with a spectacularly insane spark, the kind of person who both enchants and terrifies you with their speech. His answers are unpredictable; he sporadically jumps from topic to topic, often answering questions before I have the chance to ask them.
He buzzed with an incandescent energy, much like his glowing neon creations. “If I could make beautiful light with hair, or sheetrock, or anything that would be my art that would be my medium I just had to do this because I’m so attracted to this color, to this light and this shadow,” Ben says.
“I just had to do this because I’m so attracted to this color, to this light and this shadow.”
Ben can pinpoint the exact moment when he became enchanted by neon as a child. While helping design sets for his mother, a well-known party planner, he came across a neon sign of three cowboys. Ben says in grade school he felt like the runt of the class, but his ability to draw empowered him. “When I saw the outlines and the silhouettes of these three cowboys I thought ‘Oh my god I can draw with light, it may be possible to do that,” Ben says.
Neon sparking his imagination, Ben set off to his local library to do some research. There he unearthed a copy of “Let There Be Neon,” which he still owns to this day.
Ben went on to attend a neon school in Wisconsin where he says he learned how to become a “very mediocre sign bender.” He then apprenticed in San Antonio as a neon-repairman. “It was 12 hours a day, It was incredibly hot, 5 bucks an hour, and it was the best job I have ever had in my life,” Ben says.
“I live from one feeling to the next. I’m not a scientist. That’s what enriches my life.”
He reflects on the time with his mentor fondly, telling dramatic stories of the first time he learned how to really break glass. He says his mentor’s greatest advice was, “don’t fuck with reality, it’s hard enough already.”
Ben briefly explains how his equipment works, pointing out the manifold, bombarder, neon and argon gas bottles. He says while he understands the science behind the chemical reactions and elements, he prefers to focus on the artistic side of things. “I mean it’s unbelievable that we live in this world where phenomenon is rampant,” Ben says. “I mean everything is vibrating, and that’s what makes this color happen.”
Coming from a highly creative family and being fundamentally against polluting the skies, Ben never intended to become a traditional commercial neon sign bender. “I wax poetic about it – I don’t wax scientific,” Ben says, “That’s what occurs to me, so that is why I’m not a commercial sign person, because I’m not interested in getting the job done.”
Ben is currently involved in many projects across multiple disciplines, such as art, music and filmmaking. But one stuck out to me as particularly relevant to Austin right now. His “Eastside Spirit Houses” combine the electrifying quality of neon to light up a space with ancient wood collected from fallen Eastside homes called Hofheinz houses. These houses were created post-emancipation to serve as homes for freed slaves. After witnessing the destruction of one on East Cesar Chavez, Ben felt moved to take some of the demolished wood home.
“There is a spirit in this material crying out in agony,” Ben says, “So I asked this wood and I know it sounds crazy – but it gestured somehow to me that it needed sort of a life put back into it.”
Ben began combining his “Spirit Sticks”, neon antenna he gifts to people who have recently lost loved ones, and the salvaged wood, some with nails still in tact. He says he wanted to show how quickly people dismiss history and the willingness of one generation to disregard the next.
Listening to Ben explain how he sees the world gave me the rare pleasure of being in the company of someone who is doing what they were born to do. “I live from one feeling to the next. I’m not a scientist,” Ben says “That’s what enriches my life.”