If money is the heart of Nevada’s casino culture, then neon is its soul. The buzzing, multicolored lights could once be found the state over, adorning everything from the glitzy Las Vegas strip to mining outpost slot machines. However, the art medium—and that’s exactly what it is—that has been indicative of nightlife culture since its inception is in danger of dying out. Real neon is fragile, costly, and time-consuming to produce and repair—qualities that have seen it lose favor with the business owners who once commissioned it for their building facades or barrooms.

Jeff Johnson came to Reno to learn the craft of producing neon lights in 1994, and after almost 30 years of practice, he is one of only a handful of neon craftspeople keeping the trade alive. From his studio in Northwest Reno, he creates sculptures and signage using traditional glass bending and neon gas and has displayed his work in exhibitions around the state. On Thursday, July 28, Johnson will be holding a reception for his first solo show in years at the Savage Mystic Gallery at 538 S. Virginia St. He talked with us about his philosophy of art, inspirations for his show, and the future of his craft.

Jeff Johnson’s exhibition “Sagebrush Diogenes Club” is on view at Savage Mystic Gallery through July. Photo: Jeff Johnson

How would you describe your art, and how long have you been doing it for? 

It’s about brand new applications for neon, [that’s] what sets me apart. And I’ve been doing it since ’94, when I came to town to learn how to do it. 

Have you found anybody else who’s doing the same thing as you, or are you still really the only neon practitioner around? 

As far as I know, there’s only three [including me]. My old boss has a guy who’s working for him now. 

Can you tell me a little bit about the new show? What went into it and what people can expect if they want to come check it out? 

I got great new examples of neon art that no one has done before, and some of them are designed to be outside. … I’m one of the only people that can use neon to be subtle.

Photo: Kris Vagner

When you say that you have things that nobody’s ever seen before for this show, can you give me any specific examples? 

Well, they’re not, for example, they’re not designed to make you come across the street and buy something. They’re meant to decorate your backyard at night when it’s hot, too hot to sleep, and you’re sitting, enjoying your yard. It’s a decoration specifically. … And, yeah, I didn’t copy anybody. 

So it’s actual sculpture as opposed to advertisement? 

They are light sculptures, that’s exactly what they are. With outdoor transformers. 

So, how long have you been putting this new show together? 

Well, like everyone else, I have been thrilled to be socially distant. So basically I’ve been working on this in one form or another for at least three years. 

So you were working on it before the pandemic, but maybe you took the time during isolation to buckle down and get it done? 

No, it was just because the guy who’s the curator [Pan Pantoja] at Savage Mystic told me to do it. He wanted me to do a show at his place. … It’s a command performance. 

[laughs] You had very little say in the matter it sounds like.

That’s right. 

Were all these pieces specifically made for this show? You’re not gonna be showing any old pieces? 

There’s nothing here in this new show that has been shown anywhere before. It’s called “Sagebrush Diogenes Club.” The Diogenes Club was a club in London that Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft was a member of. 

They would sit around in this nice club facility, and you weren’t allowed to talk to or bother anyone. You could just come and have your adult beverage or whatever you want and read a periodical, say, and be left alone. There was other secret stuff they did too, but that is still mostly secret. 

Is that the kind of atmosphere you’re hoping to recreate at the show?

No, my other idea for the show was “Keep Reno Bland.” So, it was better than that, and so that’s why I ran with it. I’m keeping it simple. And this town is diluted, not just diluted, but deluded. There’s so many people in this town that never, that don’t care what happened five years ago because they weren’t anywhere near. So, anyway, it’s time for something new. 

Is this your first solo show? 

Oh no, I’ve collaborated one way or another with at least a thousand people in this town over my time doing neon here. 

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If this town is kind of diluted, as you say, are you trying to introduce anybody to kind of that classic Reno art form? Who is the show for? 

I’m especially trying to pique the interest of people that want things that just go outside in their backyard. I hope someone buys them because my yard is already full of neon art. 

Can I ask a little bit more about how Pan “commanded” you, as you said, to come here and put this show on? What’s your relationship been like with Pan?

Oh, well Pan is one of the number one art guys left in this town. Like, I don’t know if he was here 20 years ago, but at least 15. He’s been a major player. In some ways, there’d be no underground art of any kind. There’d only be art funded by the government if it wasn’t for Pan. Oh, wait, I should add government or Burning Man. 

Jeff Johnson in his backyard studio. Photo: Kris Vagner

You’re one of the few people left in this town who even knows how to put together neon in the classical way. Are you at all interested in passing the torch? What are your plans for your art career going forward? 

Well, from the things that the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles show on their site of people learning, it’s like, young, 20-year-old women are really intrigued by this. I haven’t seen so many dudes. And I know one girl who’s local. She moved away, so she could learn more and then come back. But she learned in Seattle and then she came down here. Otherwise I’ve never had anyone come to my house twice to practice except once. And then he quit coming because he became a cop. I was kind of insulted by that. [laughs] I’m kidding, he’d be one of the good cops.

If people see neon in Midtown, anything that was made in the past however-many years, is there a pretty good chance that you made it?

Only the cool and unique.

Cover photo: Kris Vagner

This article was funded by a grant from the City of Reno and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Posted by Matt Bieker

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno, Nevada. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.