Connie May 3rd 2023

I’ve sat in front of my laptop about five different times to write this blog post. Coming at it from all different angles, trying to write about my experience in the world of neon. Finding the right approach has proven more difficult than I originally thought. I have ultimately decided to start with this question to myself: What is the one thing people ask me the most about neon? I guess it would have to be: How the hell did you get into this anyway!? My answer is always the same: A neon art show at the Museum of the Rockies in 1991 in Bozeman, Montana when I was 17 years old. I saw an advertisement for a neon art show in the newspaper and felt immediately intrigued. I had never thought about neon art. I had never really thought about neon except that I liked it and knew it was called neon. When I walked into the gallery I remember having a physical response to what I was seeing. It lit up (excuse the pun) my imagination and my brain turned on. The next response was whispering to myself, “I want to learn how to make this.” And that was it. The only artist that I can remember from that show was Willem Volkerz. Willem is an artist who is originally from Holland and settled in Montana. He had his glass bent by local (Bozeman) neon legend Bill Todd from Rainbow Signs.cm_6-jpg - 1200 x 814

After that encounter with neon I screwed around with attempting to be a nanny back east (huge fail), working in Yellowstone National Park for several summers, winter resorts in Idaho, a UPS driver helper, and various other jobs that were leading me nowhere except having great stories to tell. In 1995, when I met my future ex-husband, I decided that perhaps I needed to find something to do with my life and find a path that might lead me to a career. I remembered my desire to learn the craft of neon so I started with Bill Todd in Bozeman. I asked him if I could be his apprentice, he said he was too old for that, but he would help me find a school. Bill warned me that sometimes apprenticeships could turn into slave labor and he thought that was a bad idea for me. Thanks for lookin’ out Bill! 

cm_5-jpg - 1200 x 900I had narrowed my choice of schools down to Northern Advertising in northern Wisconsin with Dean Blazek or the National Neon Institute in Benicia, California with Lee Champagne. Since we were heading into winter, I chose California. Later on, I would kick myself for that choice. I ended up working for Dean’s son Jay Blazek in Seattle for about three years at Western Neon and I feel I would have received a more well-rounded education in Wisconsin. But I didn’t and that’s ok. I received a great introduction into the craft of neon and I was on my way. I did go on some crazy installs in the San Francisco area with Lee Champagne and for that I will always be grateful. I made a dreadful sign for a bead store while I was at school, but it was my first real paying job in neon and I was damn proud of it at the time.cm_4-jpg - 1200 x 900

From California, I moved to Detroit, Michigan (where the future ex was from) and landed a job in a neon shop that was inside a larger sign shop. Bill, the guy who hired me, was a grade A asshole but I learned my neon chops at Mid Michigan Neon. It was here that I was introduced to large channel letter jobs and would go on to bend most of the glass for Auto Zones (the auto parts store) in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. Bill paid me per foot of glass that I bent, pumping, and repairs. I carried around little notebooks that I would keep track of all of my jobs and how many feet of glass I bent each week. I loved living in Michigan but in 2000 the ex wanted to move out west again, so off we went. 

cm_2-jpg - 1200 x 1073After Michigan, I worked for Western Neon in Seattle and American Neon in Tacoma. We lived there for a total of seven years. My years in Washington were very formative as a tube bender. For the first 10 years of my career I supported myself by bending and pumping glass and I am proud of that. I worked hard to hone the craft of bending glass. One thing I do regret is not paying closer attention to all those “extra” things a tube bender needs to know. Like plumbing, carpentry, more complicated electricity than wiring a sign together, cleaning and maintaining your own system, and a myriad of other trades one must know to run their own shop.

cm_7-jpg - 906 x 1200And that brings me to today…I never dreamed I would own a neon shop. Especially in Casper Wyoming. But life has a way of taking you on journeys that you can be ill prepared for! I opened the doors of my very own shop three years ago when COV!d hit the United States. I wasn’t too worried at the time about my business. I was more worried about my kids and getting us through that time. And now? Well, I am once again supporting myself and my family by selling neon signs. Somehow the universe keeps looking out for us. Neon is already a unique career choice but add on the fact that I am the only functioning neon shop in the state of Wyoming, and that makes me an anomaly. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a lot of people here that love neon as much as I do and they believe in my mission to keep it alive. 

I am beyond grateful for the journey that neon has taken me on and how much it has enriched my life. I am also grateful for the wonderful humans I have met along the way. The ones who lift my spirits when I am down and frustrated and especially the ones who have helped me out of a jam or two (Robert Haus you are an amazing human). Neon is more than a glass tube filled with gas and an electrical charge, neon is a way of life, it’s a culture, it is a feeling that you can’t describe to others on the outside…neon is simply, extraordinary. 


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2 comments on "Eeny Meeny Miny Moe...Pick A Career Path By Its Toe"
ConnieSeptember 16th 2023 @ 18:33edited
Hi Todd! I would love to see anything you have! I plan on stopping in sometime when I am in Denver to check out your shop. I love what you guys do down there, especially all of the restoration you have going on.
MathewshavesJune 1st 2023 @ 20:49
Hey Connie, this is Todd at Morry's Neon in Denver. I loved your story. Thanks for sharing. The pictures were great. I do not have many of myself from the early days. Next time I am in the attic archives I might have a look around to see if I can find any. I do have an 8mm movie of the union shop I worked at in MPLS. I shot the film just before I left to come back home to Denver. I will send you a link if you are interested. It is a bit of a time capsule and will probably remind you of the channel letter shop in Detroit. Bill's niece lives here in Denver. Her and her husband came by for a shop tour last fall. She said she was flooded with memories, the distinct smell of a neon shop, and was thrilled to try her hand at bending. She said Uncle Bill never let her close to the fires. Hope we meet soon. Cheers, Todd