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Everything Is Illuminated

ae2-1Local neon artist Brian Coleman reveals his latest creations at the Felix Kulpa Gallery

Local abstract neon artist Brian Coleman creates colorful arcing, looping, cursive-shaped patterns from glass tubes filled with glowing gasses—xenon, krypton, subtle amounts of argon, and once in a while a pinch of Mercury for bright reds.

The results, he says, are other-worldly.

Ironically, he rarely uses Neon gas, which glows too bright and orange—he says he prefers more subtlety.

Around 35 of Coleman’s most recent art creations will be on display at the Felix Kulpa Gallery & Sculpture Garden from Nov. 23 to Dec. 30.

The 67-year-old artist has been practicing neon art for 40 years, and says it has taken a good portion of that time, and lots of patience, to develop his style.

After graduating from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. with a degree in industrial design, Coleman’s passion for neon grew while designing an elaborate cold cathode and neon lighting installment for an interior design firm in New York City.

Coleman says he was not interested in art when he was young. He grew up in Minnesota on an organic farm and was entirely caught up in the rural lifestyle. It wasn’t until his family moved to New York City when he was 15 that Coleman started to look at the world with an artist’s eye.

Today, Coleman is regarded as a pioneer in the neon art form. He was exceptionally successful in Europe during the ‘80s, which he describes as his most prolific period.

ae2-2A younger Brian Coleman poses with some of his neon creations in 1976.He works with specialized glass tubing that he heats delicately using open flame sources until the glass reaches its melting point, and then begins shaping the tubes. Each newly formed tube is sealed on the ends with metal electrodes. When electricity is passed across the electrodes, the gases are ionized, causing them to emit colorful fluorescent light.

“It’s like painting with the cleanest lines you’ve ever seen,” Coleman says. “So in-focus.”

He admits that his artistic process is incredibly difficult, especially since it requires intense scrutiny to ensure that the glass tubes are perfectly clean. Otherwise they won’t work. “It’s an extremely exacting process,” he says.

These days, Coleman divides his time between Santa Cruz and Big Sur, where he is currently working on projects for his upcoming exhibition at the Felix Kulpa Gallery. A self-described romantic, he says his time in the pristine forests and mountains of Big Sur is influencing his artwork greatly, and he’s very eager to show Santa Cruz what he’s been creating.

At the exhibition, much of his work will be for sale, which he says is one of the most difficult parts of creating art—not getting people to buy it, but parting with it. He says he would prefer to spend at least a few years with many of his abstract neon pieces to “become closer with the works, try to better understand them, enjoy them and see if they withstand the test of time.”

Coleman made his home in Santa Cruz from 1972 to 2010. For 18 of those years, he lived in a studio several blocks from the beach on Pleasure Point. He later moved to a ranch in Corralitos, but after two years, his home was foreclosed on and he was forced to start over.

“It was a great loss, but I’m finding that when you accept a loss, it loses its tenacity,” he says. Since the experience he has discovered a newfound enthusiasm to create art.

“I love my work. I love the constant search for new techniques and new colors,” he says. “I want people to see the beauty of lights.” 


Brian Coleman’s neon art exhibit runs Nov. 23-Dec. 30 at the Felix Kulpa Gallery & Sculpture Garden, 107 Elm St., Santa Cruz. For details, visit felixkulpa.com.

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