A bright light: Nick McKnight delves into neon art

Nick McKnight, of New London, stands with some of his neon art (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Nick McKnight, of New London, stands with some of his neon art (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Name: Nick McKnight

Age: 30

Hometown: Foster, R.I.

Now Lives: New London

His art in a snapshot: McKnight is an artist who works with multiple mediums (painting, printmaking, sculpture) and is currently specializing in neon art.

Neon art is one of the most difficult artistic mediums to learn and master. Due to a lack of neon artists and the craft becoming a dying trade, neon bending as an art form is increasingly harder to come by, McKnight says. Learning how to bend neon glass is a process in and of itself, one that has taken McKnight hundreds of hours to learn since officially starting last year. McKnight is laregly self-taught, though he has taken two classes to help master the basics of the art form over the last three years.

McKnight has been working as a professional sign bender since March for Burke Enterprise LLC Custom Signs of Oakdale, where he fabricates neon signs for small businesses and commercial clients including Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

McKnight plans all of his pieces from a pre-drawn sketch of the word or phrase that he wants to bend. Each individual bend made in a glass tube requires an extreme amount of precision, concentration, and an understanding of how glass can be bent. Factors like the length of a glass tube, its diameter and the letters being shaped must be taken into account before beginning.

McKnight’s pieces are shaped using ribbon burners and crossfires, as well as torch fires in certain instances. Besides the dangers of working with such materials, a neon artist must also deal with chemicals such as mercury, gasses, and up to 20,000 volts of electricity while putting the neon glass through a process called “bombarding” (a mechanism that prepares neon tubing to be lit).

A bit of background: McKnight has been pursuing art since he was a child and is classically trained in drawing and painting. He graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 2012 with a bachelor’s in fine arts and a focus on painting and printmaking, having previously studied at the Maryland Institute of Art and Quinebaug Valley Community College.

“When I was growing up, art became my go-to thing just to get away. I would draw, and I just haven’t stopped. I never cared about sports. As I grew older, I saw that people made careers out of it, and I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ I never wanted to do anything else."

Discovering neon art/the “aha” moment: “I don’t remember an exact moment, but I think a lot of things came together, which was my aha moment. I love printmaking, I love the light, I love glass, I love the act of crafting and craftsmanship and all of that all together was an aha moment. And watching videos of people doing neon art. I knew that that was what I wanted to do, I just wanted to be that person,” he says.

“When I started researching and working with neon, I thought it was a perfect way to bring all that together instead of keeping it separate, and I’ve used it to facilitate the marriage of my artwork.”

Crafting his aesthetic: At the moment, McKnight likes to incorporate certain words or phrases into his neon art rather than abstract shapes and designs, though he experiments with those forms, too. His words and phrases are sometimes appropriated from poems or texts that resonate with him, while other phrases are taken directly from his own poetry.

In his recent projects, McKnight appropriated the phrase “calm like a bomb” (a lyric from Rage Against the Machine) over white faux fur. In another piece, a line from his own poetry — “Haunt me in the dark as if to touch what you cannot feel” — is depicted in a bold square font.

“That line rattled around in notebooks for years. I’ve tried to fit it in poems, but I thought it just needed to be looked at alone, in that sentence, by itself. One of my best friends passed away last year, and around that time, I thought about putting it into this ... It’s about our past and our collective experience when it comes to grief and loss and how we deal with that individually," he says.

“My art is a way to understand a lot of personal things that have happened. I try to understand a lot of feelings of anxiety and loss and grief, and I’ve had a lot of that in my life. I’ve lost a lot of friends in weird ways, in unexpected ways, in freak accidents here and there, and it’s not just one.”

Latest Project: A series of marble paintings (wood panels painted to look like real marble), that will overlap with neon forms or texts.

“I like the idea of marble and neon together. I was thinking about materiality when I came up with the idea. When you think about marble, it is strong, durable and beautiful, and that against the contrast of glass is interesting. To make it, both mediums are labor intensive, with completely different processes. The marble will last forever, but the glass, which you bend and shape, may not actually last forever,” he says.

“The only problem is that working with actual marble is very difficult, but I know that I can replicate it through painting.”

What’s next: Besides planning to organize more shows and exhibits, McKnight also wants to experiment using Vantablack.

“It’s a paint with a pigment that absorbs 99.9 percent of light. You can shine a laser pointer into it, whatever you want, and it’s just a black hole. They’ve made it into paint that you can buy, and I think it’s crazy cool, and I think it would be fun to experiment with it with the neon light. I would either put a neon piece up against a painted Vantablack board, or I would like to paint parts of the neon tubes with the Vantablack to create new illusions.”

Quick takes

Top five artists: Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Weatherford, Amy Sillman, Nathan Coley, Jenny Saville

“Most of my influences are female artists, actually. They are just so much better at what they do than male artists, and they usually get the short end of the shaft when being recognized throughout history. They don’t get the respect that they deserve.”

You’re locked in a museum for a night — which one? Guggenheim Museum

Favorite Album: “King of Limbs” by Radiohead

Which artist, living or dead, would you most like to hang out with? “Cy Twombly. He was an abstract expressionist who seems like he would have been a fun guy. He seemed like a loner. There are all these old photos of him where he was wearing these suspenders and high pants and standing alone in his studio in Italy. It always fascinated me.”

m.biekert@theday.com

“Waves” by Nick McKnight. Made with argon, glass, wiring, electronics on frosted acrylic, 2017
“Waves” by Nick McKnight. Made with argon, glass, wiring, electronics on frosted acrylic, 2017
“Ghost Light” by Nick McKnight. Made with helium, glass, wiring, electronics, 2017
“Ghost Light” by Nick McKnight. Made with helium, glass, wiring, electronics, 2017

If you go

WHAT: Spray paintings and prints by Nick McKnight

WHERE: Gallery at the Wauregan, 200 Main St., Norwich

WHEN: Runs through Feb. 23. Gallery open 3-5 p.m. daily.

PRICE: Free

CALL: (860) 608-2661

and

WHAT: "Ghost House" Art by Coe Lapossy and Nick McKnight

WHERE: The Spirol Gallery for Visual and Performing Arts, Quinebaug Valley Community College, 742 Upper Maple St., Danielson

WHEN: Feb. 22-March 2

PRICE: Free

CALL: (860) 932-4160

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