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Las Vegas artist uses math, science... and a bit of danger to create glowing neon pieces

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Posted at 8:54 AM, Dec 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-30 11:57:18-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — When you think of Las Vegas, it’s hard not to imagine the classic neon signs across the city. But creating these pieces of art involves math, science, and a little danger.

"You have to pay attention to what you’re doing because you can get burns, you know? Good ones,” said Oscar Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is a neon artist who’s been creating signs and other pieces of art since 1992. He says a neighbor two doors down from him is what first sparked his interest in the art form when he was a kid.

SIMILAR: Artist brings vintage Las Vegas signs to life at Neon Museum through augmented restoration

"It was a small house where they do neon. I saw them going in and out with a bunch of different figures of glass. I asked him to let me learn how to bend neon. He said you’re too young for that. Go to school. But he gave me the opportunity."

Gonzalez started making his first welds when he was 15 years old. Since then, he’s gotten hands-on practice with various projects. First, he receives a design that’s been approved by the client and then the planning begins.

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"You have to plan ahead where you’re going to start. It depends on the color too, what kind of material you’re going to use,” Gonzalez said. "Some glass is more difficult to work with.”

Gonzalez uses torches that are around a thousand degrees to heat the glass to make it malleable enough to bend. He then blows a steady stream of air through the glass while he shapes it. That’s to keep it from breaking since it’s so fragile and the way he shapes it can affect the final product.

"If he were to bend and create a V, for example, if he were to bend that and have a crease at the bottom of that V, that’s going to limit the amount of gas that goes through,” said Aaron Berger, the executive director of the Neon Museum. “That’s going to change the effectiveness of the neon.”

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Once the final shape is created, the glass is cooled down and electrodes are welded on both ends of the tube. Then it’s hooked up to a pumping station. That removes oxygen and inserts the neon or argon gas before being sealed.

Hartlauer Signs says more and more businesses are turning to neon for inspiration.

“I think people are looking to do sort of things out of the box,” said sales associate Dennis Connor. “We had the opportunity to work with Tim Burton at the Neon Museum and that was definitely out of the box.”

While this art form has made a resurgence in recent years, it’s getting harder to find artisans like Gonzalez.

Hartlauer and the Neon Museum will sometimes bring in students from UNLV to learn the craft. Gonzalez says it’s a lot of fun to be a mentor and pass on his knowledge.

“I let them play with the fire and say okay, let’s try this,” Gonzalez said. “I want you to feel how the glass feels and they start to manipulate the glass but not in a traditional way.”

Gonzalez says it brings him back to how he got started in the industry and he hopes to leave the same legacy in lights as those that came before him.