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Neon Artist Meryl Pataky Fights Physics to Bend Light

And she's got the scars to prove it.


To make this abstract line portrait, Meryl Pataky drew a contour self-portrait while looking in the mirror, turned it into a pattern, then bent the form in neon. “It was fun to make because it broke the rules of neon sign specs,” she says.

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The artist in her Mission studio.

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Pataky heats a glass tube to over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit on a cross fire to create bends. Every piece of neon has an electrode on each end to carry the current.

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Pataky’s neon text is based on a hand-drawn pattern—“a nod to the nostalgia of the medium,” she says—that is protected by a heatproof screen.

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A heat-resistant glove, an electrode holder, a Stabilo pencil, a bending block, and a tubulated electrode: just some of the tools used to create the neon artworks.

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Perceive Yourself in Light

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Neon art is not for the weak or faint of heart. You’ve got to fight physics to bend 1,000-degree-Fahrenheit tubes of glass into graceful shapes—and Meryl Pataky has the scars to show for it. “The amps are what could kill me,” says the 33-year-old neon artist matter-of-factly. “One shock would probably blow my limbs off.”

But it’s the danger of neon that intrigued Pataky in the first place. “I like it because it’s hard,” she says. “I’ve always been attracted to those mediums.” Originally trained as a metalsmith, she discovered neon in a class at Academy of Art University. Forging her way in a male-dominated trade, Pataky has adopted a “powerhouse Rosie the Riveter alter ego,” she says. “Even the glass gives you a lot of resistance.”

Pataky’s pieces incorporate chemistry and spirituality, often highlighting elements of the periodic table. Her own knuckles are tattooed with the letters Ar, Ne, and Ag, the symbols for argon, neon, and silver. (She’s worked out an unorthodox apprenticeship with Idle Hand tattoo artist Austin Maples: neon lessons in exchange for free tattoos.)

Currently, Pataky is revisiting her silversmithing roots, making mixed-media assemblages of neon, metal, and found objects. She’s an evangelist for her craft, which she considers both a particularly badass medium and a cultural touchstone. “People might not think much about neon now, but they’ll sure as hell miss it when it’s gone,” she says. “Look at Vegas.”


Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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