I put a bag of doughnuts on the table in front of neon artist Andy Doig as a gesture of thanks as he is clearly inundated. He says the demand for neon has gone right up since he started in Brighton over 20 years ago. I ask if it’s his doing, and he replies, quietly confidently, “I like to think so”.
I’m keen to see how the process works, so Andy, relaxed when busy, fires up his ‘blower’ and lights the propane. He takes atube of glass from his stock of many colours – “a picture in itself” – and heats it over the naked flame, explaining how neon began as a commercial industry in the 20s and had been adopted by artists by the middle 50s.
The hot glass is bent to fit a 2D template, or 3D object, from memory, and Andy has just three seconds before it hardens.
At intervals the tube is offered up to a drawing, soon covered in scorches, to see if it fits. “You create it all in space,” Andy explains. “It involves your whole body… I find that quite therapeutic.”
When he shows me how he wraps neon around a pair of animal horns, it makes me think of that fairground buzzer game where you can’t let the hoop touch the wire. He agrees, “You have to work yourself up into a sea of concentration”.
“Neon is about atmosphere,” says Andy, who, like many street artists, enjoys seeing his work in unexpected places. “The [installations] I like best are the ones that swallow you up… it’s not just a picture right in front of you with studio lighting. It totally encompasses you. It tricks your brain, tricks your retina.”
“[My] most ambitious projects were the ones I did when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! I always say a milestone was the Komedia sign; because of its audacity… I did all that on my own, more or less. And now for me to walk by and see the whole street lit up… that’s probably my most rewarding job.”
Brighton is made for people like Andy. “There’s nowhere like Brighton. In that, it’s got the commerce and the craziness… you can be a bit crazy because there’s another crazy person that will egg you on.”
The many passers-by of his glowing seafront studio are also an inspiration. “You meet people who have worked with neon; others that have been engineers; or others that have had careers and then retired… I’m really interested in how their lives are panning out. It’s interesting to think that, after 40 years of work, some still search for other things to interest them.
“I know I’ll be happy doing what I do now. If what I make ends up unsold, it doesn’t matter. You’re still doing what your body’s been happy doing all those years, and that’s important.”
See neonschool.co.uk for details of Andy Doig’s upcoming neon workshops.