Interview with Artist Lily Reeves

By Gemma Cirignano

Lily Reeves is a neon artist and designer known for her immersive and collaborative environments and performances. Reeves received her B.F.A. from Alfred University in 2015 and her M.F.A. from Arizona State University in 2018. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Urban Glass Robert Lehman Gallery, Brooklyn, NY; Phoenix Center for Contemporary Art, Phoenix, AZ; S12 Gallery, Bergen, Norway; Loveland Museum of Art, Loveland, CO; Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Houston, TX; and Museum of Neon Art, Los Angeles, CA.
In addition to her fine art practice, Reeves owns and operates her own lighting and design studio called Reeves Studio in Phoenix, Arizona.

GMC: What was your introduction to neon? How did incorporating neon shift your artistic practice?

LR: My journey to learning about neon is a serendipitous and long story, but I have always worked with light in some way. I started making art at 15 through a summer program in Birmingham, Alabama. I also worked at an iron-casting foundry called Sloss Furnaces in high school and college. A huge part of the casting process is melting down the molten metal and forming it into molds. The alchemy of pouring metal while it is hot, bright, and liquid was so gorgeous, it drew me to sculpture.

I went to art school where I sculpted in glass and metal, but I did not know what my niche was. I transferred to Alfred University my sophomore year, because I knew I had to leave Alabama to be serious about art. I could not afford out-of-state tuition, and Alfred was the only school that offered me a scholarship. I remember walking past their neon studio on my first day and stopping in my tracks. Everyone is drawn to neon–like a moth. I have ADHD, so I have the attention span of a squirrel and neon was the only thing that held my attention.

You could not take a neon class until your junior year, but I immediately went to the studio and asked students to teach me. I am thankful for my past self because I saw how manageable it was to start a neon studio. I am not from a wealthy family, and I have always had to think about money. I originally went to school thinking I wanted to blow glass, but I quickly realized that I could not do that. It costs about $30,000 to set up a hot shop but you can set up a neon studio in your garage for $5,000.

I had no formal art training before going to Alfred, and I did not realize you could use neon as an art medium. All of my art exposure was from museums in the South where I only ever saw glasswork. I was always drawn to glass; I collected little glass trinkets as a kid. When I realized the machismo mentality of the hot shop and the financial stress that it would take to be successful, I turned to neon. It was everything I wanted in a medium: it is alive and has all this potential that people still have not explored.

GMC: Alfred University is unique in its art department’s offering of neon too, right?

LR: Yes, there are only three or four colleges in the country that have neon shops. It was serendipitous because I did not go there for neon. I went there, and then I fell in love with the medium. I recognize my privilege of learning this medium at a university. Many people do not learn neon that way. A lot of people have to apprentice at a commercial shop or take classes. I was lucky to have unlimited access to a studio for three years to learn and experiment.

GMC: You create a relationship between neon and performance art in your work. What led you to make this connection and how do the two mediums interact in your art?

LR: I make art from an intuitive place, which I attribute to growing up in the South. A lot of my mentors were folk artists who stuck their noses up at contemporary art. They made art because they had to and that is how I have always made my work. I do not like trying to make sense of what I am doing, that comes after.

Working with neon as a medium and being the one who is bending the work is a lot to handle. I bend a pattern, I move it to the table, I bombard it, I put the mercury in it, I hold it to dump it…Holding neon is magical. It feels like holding liquid light.

I deal with a lot of mysticism and magic in my work, and I consider myself a witch. These performances are a way to embody the spiritualism that I work with in my art. Light is such a great metaphor for what I am interested in and performance makes my work less objectified, less stagnant, more embodied, and more alive. It is different to be a part of a performance than it is to look at a sculpture. It has an intensity that drew me in.

GMC: Even outside of your performances, spirituality, mysticism, and the occult are central themes in your work. Where does your interest in spirituality come from?

LR: I was raised Episcopalian. I grew up going to church and that tapered off in college. I stopped believing in Christianity and turned to other places for spiritual outlets. That is what my practice has become: a spiritual outlet. Performance was a way to experience ritual and ceremony in my own way. It gives me something that everyone needs. I do not want to go to church to get it, I want to dig a hole in the woods and video myself crawling out.

GMC: Your interest in magic also comes through in your choice of color. Your soft purples, blues, pinks, and yellows are not the typical hues used in neon signage. How do you select your colors for a project?

LR: I try to use neon in non-traditional ways because it is a relatively new medium for sculpture. Neon is only about 100 years old, while bronze casting and marble carving have been around for centuries. People have been stacking rocks since the beginning of time! Neon is this world of possibilities, but for so long it has been used as an arm of capitalism. I try to combat that and make people think about the medium.

Most famous neon artwork from the sixties until now were not bent by the artist. They were commissioned from a commercial sign shop. I bend my work; knowing the process and science behind neon gives me the advantage of understanding how I can combine colors that people do not use. To me, it is all about using the medium in a more nuanced way. How does it make you feel when you stand in front of one of my signs versus an open sign or that red border you see everywhere?

Color theory and the application of light as color are different. Color theory is about materials that reflect light and give you a color. Neon works as a CMYK, subtractive color. It is so different, and it makes you feel different too. In color theory, you are absorbing the reflection of light off of an object, so it is a muted color. With light, you are literally absorbing the colored light. We perceive light as the photons go into our eyes. They are refracted in our irises and projected onto the back of our eyeballs. We are literally bringing this color into our heads and eating or absorbing it. Being in blue light is a completely different experience than seeing the ocean.

The light is powerful, it is abrasive. I learned that early on…I remember doing a performance where I had a model wearing a red neon headpiece. The performance was supposed to be two hours long but she sat for 20 minutes and then took the headpiece off and said she felt like she had a fever or was overheating. I put the headpiece on and I was like: oh my god, you are right! You experience light in a different way than you experienced color.

I make a design line series called Color Studies, and it is a sustainable way to make work out of my studio. I use all of my scrap glass and try different combinations of colors and see how they react with each other. You would not think that a red and an orange and a yellow would look good together, but maybe they do as one combination. You can change the sequence of the colors and it is a different piece. A lot of people do not see or think of that. If you walk into a room, a normal person is not going to think: oh my god, there are 12 different colored white fluorescent lights in here! But I do and it drives me insane.

GMC: Along with your allusion to the supernatural, your work is also frequently tied to nature. How do you decide whether to bring neon into the desert versus into a gallery space? And how do your surroundings inform your work?

LR: I never considered myself an environmental artist per se, but our connection to the land is who we are as humans. Today, a lot of people are disconnected from the land and that disconnects us from our spirit. Using simple geometric shapes, universal symbols, and the natural landscape or natural elements has always been a spiritual connection for me.

Nature is a healer. If you feel like shit and you go on a walk or hike a mountain, you feel better. You feel small, you feel more connected to the world. I am always trying to do that in my work, whether it is about connecting to myself or connecting to the land.

My art practice is a spiritual practice and being outside is an integral part of that. It makes me a better person. When we are disconnected from nature, when we spend all of our time inside under fluorescent lights, we lose a part of our humanity. It might be slowly over generations but there is something so deep and powerful and spiritual about being connected to the land.

We are slowly coming to understand that the future is not sustainable. This planet is millions of years old, and if we want to continue to be in harmony with each other and ourselves, then we need to reconnect to the land. During colonialism, people started to see the land as primal, rudimentary, or elementary and it is not, it is sacred.

GMC: When you install your work outside, are you usually alone? Do you have openings or is it documented through photography and then shared?

LR: I have never had an outdoor gathering, so it is usually just me. Recently I worked with Apache Stronghold. That was different in that I worked and collaborated with other people so we were all there. It depends on the project, the piece, and who is involved.

GMC: Based on your experience as an artist and studio owner, what shifts in the industry of neon have you seen and what future changes would you like to see?

LR: The She Bends community is amazing. The neon world is so small, everyone knows of everyone else, so I would love to see more of a community. Our neon industry is shrinking every day. I am always dealing with supplier issues and manufacturer issues. Access to everything is becoming more difficult, especially with COVID. The number of available colors we can buy is shrinking. I would love to see more apprenticeship programs across the board. It is hard to have an apprentice because it is time and money, but it is a practice that I try to keep up. The most important thing to our survival as an industry is teaching young people who do not have access to go to Alfred University.

I would also love to see more engineers get involved in patenting new tools for the neon industry, because I am held back by the state of the technology in neon. I work as a lighting designer and run a business, but there are things that I can do with LEDs that I cannot do with neon. The industry is stuck in the eighties because LEDs took over in the nineties, and there is a lot of misinformation out there about the sort of environmental impacts of LED versus neon. There are a lot of benefits to neon that you cannot get with LED.

I would also just love for more people to invent basic equipment for the neon industry. The actual parts like dimmers are so dated. I got UL listed as a shop, and I am frequently told that I need a part for a sign to be UL listed that they do not manufacture anymore. You cannot buy some of the parts. Even the UL Code has not been updated since the eighties. That is the most frustrating part. The neon industry was almost forgotten, so the technology stopped being developed. It is prohibitive and dangerous. We still use liquid mercury, but the plasma TV and the cold cathode industry all use titanium-impregnated strips. Why are we still using this technology from the seventies?

GMC: Do you have upcoming projects our readers should check out?

LR: I am exhibiting my work in the She Bends exhibition Redefining Neon Legacy at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, which opened February, 2023.