Pushing Neon 

Wil Kirkman takes glass, gas to the limit

The first thing that everyone wants to know about Wil Kirkman's neon glass sculptures is how they work. It is an understandable inquiry; Kirkman's shaped glass tubes seem to balance light while separating colors into different compartments. The process is fascinating: just understanding how neon works is interesting, and the way that various colors can be created using different phosphors and gases lends itself to an air of discovery. While it's easy to engage Kirkman in an explanation of the process, the technical details are just a means to an end in his creative process. "It's just the route that I take to get where I want to go," says Kirkman. It is far more revealing to hear him talk about other aspects of his life and his art.

Kirkman was born in New York City in 1959. His father, a Presbyterian minister, heeded the call to become a missionary, and the family moved between the U.S. and various locations in Asia throughout Kirkman's childhood. They lived in Singapore as urban missionaries for five years, beginning in 1970. "We traveled all over Asia, and I got to run wild with my friends," says Kirkman. "That's where I got my tattoo at age 12. I got it from a guy named Johnny Two Thumbs in the back of a shop that sold knock-off Levis. My mother didn't speak one word to me for 48 hours." Said tattoo is a black panther, "of course," Kirkman says, "because my buddy already had the dragon."

Kirkman returned to the States for his secondary education. "I spent my high school years in Vegas during the last gasp of the mob in the late 1970s," says Kirkman. After he worked at a series of casino jobs for several years, his mom showed him a brochure for the College of Idaho, which described a school "nestled in the heart of the Rockies." Being an outdoorsy guy who has always loved hiking and camping, Kirkman decided to attend. "I got to Caldwell and wondered, 'Where the hell are the mountains? This doesn't look like the Rockies.'"

The school had a hot glass program at the time, and Kirkman found himself spending most of his time in the art department. "Something clicked," he says. "The idea of making things appealed to me. Plus I was always drawn to the bohemian types, and that's where they were hanging out." During this time, Kirkman began working in what is known as "warm glass," a process of cutting, assembling and melting glass together in a ceramics kiln. After graduating with a degree in history, Kirkman embarked on a "series of meaningless jobs." Even so, he always kept his hand in working with glass. "I always had a studio where I lived, even when I lived in tenement housing in almost Garden City," says Kirkman. "I still have my original kiln."

In 1995, Kirkman began working at sign-making. One of his early jobs was the mind-numbing task of painting "endless foam letters Albertson's blue," he says. "I would be blue from head to toe. Everyone who has that job is known as Papa Smurf. I have my work in probably every Albertson's store in the country." Soon after his blue period, Kirkman started working in a little neon shop as an apprentice, where he began to work with glass professionally. "I liked the idea of learning a craft or trade or art," he says. His hobby became his profession, and he began to use different methods of forming glass besides torch and furnace. He started blowing glass, which allowed him to move and manipulate it in different ways. He also learned to work with neon.

In 1998, Kirkman decided to open his own shop and Rocket Neon was born. He found his niche as a small business doing custom signage for windows and interior spaces, specializing in custom neon work. The commercial neon that he creates is based on three elements: design, use of color and the artistic component. This "bread and butter" work is a creative endeavor in and of itself, and it has given Kirkman a real sense of purpose. "I like coming to work," he says. "I get to do different things every day, and I learn new stuff all the time." He has also combined work and art by collaborating with other artists and has provided the neon component for public art projects such as the airport wings and the Grove Hotel illumination.

Kirkman's artwork has been shown at the Basement Gallery and is currently on display at the Hanson-Howard Gallery in Ashland, Oregon. His inspiration comes from his interest in the material that he works with. "I love the organic-ness of glass," says Kirkman. "I love its translucence and the way it reflects light." This fascination has led him to begin pushing the boundaries of neon art. Neon in art is generally used as a component combined with other materials to create a sort of "lit" sculpture, or to create structures using the glass tubes. Often, the ability to form script becomes the focus. Kirkman's work attempts to explore the medium and use it to its fullest capacity. "I want to push the limits," he says. "I want to see what I can do with it and explore the limits of technology." Kirkman has begun developing new ways to use the materials on hand to create a different effect. He has begun manipulating the phosphors--the rare earth elements that fluoresce under ultraviolet light--and uses the powders that he harvests from colored glass tubes to paint inside of glass. He has also started to introduce foreign objects into the tubes, creating a diorama effect.

Kirkman has developed a series of sculptures featuring organic shapes that have form, depth and reflective qualities. These are Kirkman's first figurative forms, abstract though they may be. The "exo-biologic" forms "are what I imagine creatures might be like on a distant planet, one with an ocean," he says. "These are extra-worldly figures that are based in a world where I imagine the foibles of humanity imposed on these other creatures.

"The characters absolutely have emotion in them," he continues. "They have a free-form gestural quality to them. There's also an element of social commentary, because that's just who I am. I like to engage in the world around me."

He is also working on a second, distinctly different series where he uses long, straight tubes and manipulates a portion of them into a distinct shape. "This series is not representational but experiential," Kirkman explains. "These come together as I make them; they just happen as they go." He considers these to be "landscapes of abstract light." In this series, Kirkman is concerned "partially with the tube itself, but also with how it interacts with its environment. I'm playing with light and form."

It's not surprising that Kirkman would test the outer limits of his medium. "The materials provide a route to where I want to go," he says. From his base at Rocket Neon, he takes us out of this world.

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