Creating Art from fire and gas

Combining science with art can lead to endless possibilities.  New York artist Kenny Greenberg takes us inside his studio for look at what gives neon signs their spark.


Combining science with art can lead to endless possibilities.

New York Artist Kenny Greenberg takes us inside his studio for a look at what gives neon signs their spark.


Definitely looking for a combination of art and science.

I don't know where I thought neon came from, but you don't think about it.

You know, you don't look at a light bulb and think about how it's made, and when I learned that every single neon sign that you've ever seen anywhere was made by hand, that just really attracted me.

I think, also, what I loved then and still love about it is it's actually a very old technology.

[ '20s-style show music plays ] What we do today is not that much different from what was going on 100 years ago.

We're taking matter and making light.

We're turning matter into light energy, and we do that every day kind of casually, but it's kind of really thrilling.

The first production I worked on was the original Broadway 'Miss Saigon.'

There was a period where, on average, I was doing 12 a year.

We kind of have a reputation for getting the job done.

You know, the joke is sometimes I'll get called by one of the scenery shops, and they go, 'We've got a lot of time for this one this time.

We've got two weeks,' you know?

I'll basically trace over the design on the computer, and, you know, I do what I call 'neonizing' it, and then that becomes a template.

We actually reverse it because neon is bent so that its face is always flat, so we're bending it from behind.

All right.

What should we make?

[ Upbeat music plays ] We seal it, but we allow a port to come out of it.

It's going to kind of collapse a little bit.

So when I'm blowing it... it's blowing it out to preserve the channel.

♪♪ Matching it to the pattern.

Just blocking it down a little bit.

♪♪ ♪♪ We can pull all of the air out of it, and we actually heat it while we're doing that so that we really make sure we get all of the matter out of it, and we try to achieve as close to an outer-space emptiness as possible inside the tube.

Turning off the vacuum pump, engaging the manometer.

And then we fill it with a rare gas, and it's filled at a low pressure.

And when an electric current passes through the rare gas, there's a very, very efficient exchange of energy.

What happens is... I mean, it's not this simple, but a simplified explanation is that the electricity knocks electrons off of the atoms, and these electrons bounce around and knock into other atoms and electrons and get pushed back into the atom again, and, at the moment that it's pushed back into the atom, the atom has to release energy in order to absorb it, and that energy is light.

That's air lighting up.

Well, the gases themselves, there's really only four or five rare gases, and the color range is not that much in the gases themselves.

And, in fact, in most neon that you're seeing, we're really only using one of two gases.

And one gas is giving us a red light, and the other gas is giving us a blue light that has a lot of ultraviolet in it, as well.

But if the tubes are coated with phosphors that react to the ultraviolet light, we start to see additional colors coming from the ultraviolet light affecting the phosphors, and there are phosphors that are green, that are purple, that are, you know, all different colors, and, at the same time, some of the blue light filters through the phosphor because it's a thin coating, so you get a mix of whatever the phosphor is putting out and the visible blue light.

Add to that, you can also actually have different colored glass, so the glass can kind of intensify the colors.

I think, at last count -- I usually use a number of saying there's probably about 200 to 300 colors that are available.

If we're working with hand-blown glass, you can get dimensional with it, as well.

I mean, I think the variations are kind of endless.