The neon lights of David Hutson have transformed the art gallery at Laumeier Sculpture Park into a lustrous electric wonderland. His show also has sparked memories and nostalgia for a glowing St. Louis in less complicated times.
Hutson, a neon artist and a collector of neon signs of the past, is tickled when visitors study his collection and begin to use a little electricity of their own to send Instagrams and text messages.
“Guess where the Big Boys sign from I-70 is now?” begins one message. “I’ve just found that cool neon sign they used to have at Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood,” begins another message.
Yes, nostalgia is part of the attraction of the Webster Groves artist’s exhibit, but so is the realization that this is art. It’s a people’s art created with exclusive media mixing rare gasses, fragile glass, electric wiring and porcelain.
“I love to listen to the memories,” said Hutson. “I understand the fun of discovering the neon shoe that once was outside of the repair shop on West Lockwood in Webster Groves.
“The Big Boys sign from the old restaurant along I-70 in Wright City attracts a lot of comments,” said Hutson. “People sometimes think it’s a sign for a hamburger place, but it’s really a character presenting his customers with a hot roasted chicken. At one time, they raised the chickens behind the place.”
According to Hutson, the signs are not just about selling chicken or beer or a night at the bowing alley. They are all about the promise of a good time, an invitation to something that could just, well, light up your life.
“Neon is so attention-getting,” said Hutson. “People are attracted to it like moths to the flame. The medium is the message and it’s not just about selling you a Coke or a Bud. It’s luring you with a feeling that’s being created.”
Part of Laumeier’s 2018 Kranzberg Series, “David Hutson: Memory & Desire, A Personal Exploration of Neon Art, Past and Present,” runs through Jan. 13, 2019. The exhibit, free and open to all ages, features some of the artist’s work from the present, including a Hutson glowing tube creation that can be found on a tree along “the way” in Laumeier’s iconic Way Field.
It’s a text-based artwork capturing a quote from poet and novelist Wendell Berry. It cascades down the trunk of the tree and reads: “When I rise up let me rise up joyful like a bird. When I fall let me fall without regret like a leaf.”
Words To Live By
Hutson said he has been a big fan of Berry’s words and philosophical views for years. He said the quote he committed to neon is wise counsel for artists.
“Fall down without regret,” Hutson noted. “So many people feel completely defeated if they don’t succeed at everything. But failures are part of what lead to success, so fall without regret.”
The current show is not Hutson’s first at Laumeier. His initial neon collection was seen at the sculpture park in 1984 when he was just 17 and a senior at Lindbergh High School. The exhibition was titled, “Neon 1-2-3‚” and revealed his early fascination with neon as art.
“My dad was a commercial artist when I was a kid, and on ‘snow days’ he would take me to work with him,” said Hutson. “As evening came, he would say, ‘Come on, let’s go up on the roof.’
“In those days, there were neon lights all over the city and you could hear their buzz above the congestion below,” said Hutson. “A lot of those lights have gone by the wayside, but I developed such an affection for them. And I began spending time in preservation efforts and in making my own neon art.”
Today, Hutson owns Neon Time in St. Charles where he creates his own work and restores vintage neon signs. He is an active member of the Heritage Preservation Committee of the Route 66 Association of Missouri.
Hutson said the stretch of Route 66 from Sunset Hills into the city was once studded with buzzing neon signs to attract travelers to motels, restaurants, stores and tourist stops. He has salvaged and restored some of them.
“I am pleased to hear that Sunset Hills and Crestwood are trying to restore some of the old flavor of Route 66,” said Hutson. “So much of the signage has been removed and lost. The old Crestwood Bowl sign is still there, and that’s certainly a part of the history.”
Although new LED lighting is more efficient, Hutson regrets the loss of neon lighting. He said we live in an age when people don’t just want “low maintenance.” They want “no maintenance.” Neon lighting is not a zero maintenance technology.
“For me, LED has no soul,” Hutson said. “Neon is analog. It has warmth and intricacy. It has echoes of a more enchanting time. It attracts the eye and it is more pleasing to the eye.”
Coffee + Conversation
Hutson will meet the public to talk about his collection and neon art in two “Coffee + Conversation” events at the sculpture park gallery. The first will be Saturday, Dec. 8, at 11 a.m. and the second is slated for Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, at 11 a.m.
“The event on Saturday, Dec. 8, will be a conversation between me and artist Bill Christman,” said Hutson. “Bill is my wise senior, and he has a similar background in theatre, arts and lighting.
“Bill had experience working with the late Bob Cassilly, another Webster Groves artist,” Hutson explained. “Bill has his own sculpture garden at Joe’s Café in a neighborhood near Washington University. He is a great guy and has a lot to say. He has a very real, unpretentious take on art in St. Louis.”
Hutson sees art in St. Louis in the bygone days of neon signs, from the Palace Bowl, a large billboard animating a perfect strike, to the Klund’s Pastry Chef, the focal point for a bakery storefront on Gravois near Loughborough until its closing in 1986.
“One of the things that makes St. Louis neon signs special is the presence of so many stove companies here in history,” said Hutson. “Sign companies would bake the signs’ porcelain enamel in the ovens at these companies.
“In the collecting world today, a neon enamel porcelain sign is coveted because it’s so unique – and it’s a part of the uniqueness of St. Louis.”
Laumeier Curator Dana Turkovic draws on the words of artist Larry Rivers in her notes on Hutson’s show: “Neon has a gaiety, joy, pageantry, circus qualities ... the canvas is the night.”
To share in the gaiety and pageantry of Hutson’s neon art, check out his show at the Laumeier Sculpture Gallery in Sunset Hills.