Matt Thompson might be the last of a dying breed. Or he might be living proof that everything cycles back around.
"Neon has gone from being cool to not cool to cool again," said Thompson, a "blowing tube" draped over his neck at his northeast Minneapolis workplace, which is filled with eye candy. "We've gone through ups and downs, but we're alive and well."
There are about a dozen artisans in town, but Thompson, 42, is one of the few who does restoration as well as concocting original signage. He's spiffing up a Cafe Brenda sign for restaurateur Brenda Langton's home and creating a 3 1/2-foot-wide replica of the Grain Belt billboard for a couple who live just down the Mississippi from that riverfront icon. An 8-foot-wide Coca-Cola sign filling much of the floor space is among his active restoration projects.
Along with "every suburban guy who has a pool table and wants a personalized beer sign," Thompson's best customers are members of the Minnesota Street Rod Association, who want vivid signs for their garages "that are era-correct to the 1950s."
Most of the signs filling Thompson's studio go back farther than that. A Hamm's "Dancing Goblet" marquee is first among equals among the beer logos, not all of them neon but most advertising long-gone brands: Schmidt's City Club, Gettelman, King Cole, North Star Lager, Mineral Spring, Kaier's. On one wall is a large red Mobil winged horse, on another a rare Washburn-Crosby Gold Medal Flour sign.
Most of the signs are part of Thompson's personal collection, perhaps available for the right price and "awaiting their turn to be restored. They've gone through their time of being just junk."
The latest competition: inexpensive LED lighting.
"There was a successful sales hype by the LED salesmen about them being cheaper and more efficient," he said. "What we're finding is that modern neon is just as economical," not to mention more environmentally sound than polymer plastics. "It doesn't get more green than glass, which is made from sand," he said.
An artistic bent
Artistic pursuits have deep roots in Thompson's family tree. His father, Orell, worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and then became a toymaker, opening the first store in the refurbished Butler Square. His brother, Mike, has been editorial cartoonist at the Detroit Free Press since 1998.
"Being exposed to that artistic world is probably what helped me stick with this," he said. "In this business, there's got to be a love of the craft, 'cause you're not going to buy a house in the Bahamas working in the neon business."
Still, Thompson was drawn to this then-fading vocation, enrolling in neonmaking classes in the Colonial Warehouse in Minneapolis' Warehouse District at age 19. Among his teachers was sculptor Brad Jirka, longtime instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design.
"Being a glass bender is theoretically easy, but technically hard to do," said Jirka. "It's pretty much like alchemy, an old process that hasn't changed much. It's been updated a bit, but frankly you can set up the same system that someone used in 1902 and get good results."
After taking those classes, Thompson apprenticed for four years in Honolulu, then helped set up a neon-glass shop in Amsterdam. He taught at the University of Delft in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and worked in Milan, Italy, and Dusseldorf, Germany, "just goofing around and showing people how to blow neon tubing," before returning to open Skyline Neon in 1993.
Now he's there every day, usually in a T-shirt and jeans, tracing outlines on paper and "bending tube" over one of three flames. It's painstaking work, and occasionally painful, too. After years of working with glass that must reach 1,160 degrees to bend, his hands can tolerate some heat.
"A couple of puffs of smoke off your 'asbestos fingers' and a few choice words, and it's back to work," he said. "The pain only lasts for about 20 seconds."
Word of mouth and his website (www.skylineneonsigns.com) have been key to his success in a down economy. "Long-term relationships keep you going," he said. "It would be a tough go to get into the business now."
At least until, in the natural cycle of all matters cultural, neon goes away and comes back "in" again.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643