Craft Culture: The art of fire, glass, and noble gas at Skyline Neon

Matt Thompson applies his 30 years of sign-making experience at his Minneapolis shop, Skyline Neon // Photo by Dan Murphy

Matt Thompson applies his 30 years of sign-making experience at his Minneapolis shop, Skyline Neon // Photo by Dan Murphy

There’s a good chance Matt Thompson has worn out the nerve endings on his fingertips. Despite handling molten hot glass nearly every day, he refuses to wear gloves. After decades, his hands are battle worn from blisters, cuts, and third degree burns. Still, that doesn’t stop the neon sign maker from grabbing a glass tube and sticking his hands right up to the blue flame spitting out from the end of his torch.

“Your fingertips know what’s happening. You can feel the temperature of the glass and when it’s ready to bend,” says the 49-year-old artist. “Your eyes and fingers have to learn how to communicate with each other, and then tell your brain when to move your hands. You don’t even have to think about it if you’ve done it for 30 years.”

Coaxing a piece of glass into a specific shape requires equal parts heat, concentration, and a high tolerance for physical pain and mental anguish. It’s not a skill you pick up in a few weeks, but one you master over the course of years of frustration and practice. Today, Matt is one of only a handful of neon glass blowers left in Minnesota. Most days you can find him holed up in his Northeast Minneapolis shop, Skyline Neon, using colored glass tubes and canisters of gas to restore old signs, build custom signage, or create unique pieces of art.

“After doing it for 30 years, I have a responsibility to continue to help preserve it,” he says. “I enjoy making neon and being involved in the process of keeping it alive.”

Modern day traditions

Skyline Neon owner Matt Thompson // Photo by Dan Murphy

Skyline Neon owner Matt Thompson // Photo by Dan Murphy

After decades of twisting glass into letters, Matt is an expert at reading words upside down and backward. That’s because his art form requires him to work in reverse to hide the bends necessary to transform glass rods into cursive font. With a Sharpie, Matt sketches out each new design on paper. Then he lays a metal screen on top of his patterns so the paper doesn’t catch fire while he works.

Seated in front of a series of tubes, levers, and gauges, Matt switches from artist to scientist as he hooks up a finished piece to the contraption lying on the table before him. The machine’s official name is a manifold, or high-vacuum system. There’s a spiraled glass beaker under the table called a silicone oil diffusion pump, and a power line transformer that can deal out a lethal voltage. With one zap, the temperature inside Matt’s neon creation jumps up to 450 degrees, vaporizing any leftover pieces of dirt or dust.

Over the next five minutes everything, including the air, gets sucked out to make way for neon or argon gas. The electrodes welded to the end of the neon tubes start to pump electricity through cylinders, and as the atoms absorb the energy Matt’s sign blinks to life.

“The basic principles are still the same as it was 100 years ago,” says Matt. “There is some forgiveness, but it’s a very difficult trade.”

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Photos by Dan Murphy

At 19 years old, Matt enrolled in a six-week course at the American School of Neon, one of four programs that offered classes in the Twin Cities at the time. A week after finishing the program he boarded a plane to Hawaii for his first job. The gig didn’t last long, but a nearby neon shop hired Matt as an apprentice.

He spent the next four years on Oahu learning the trade before moving to Amsterdam with one of his teachers to set up a glass blowing shop. For a year the pair traveled around Europe to teach the faster, American style of neon-making until Matt returned home to open his own shop, Skyline Neon, in 1993.

“It’s a learning curve. You have to stand there for weeks, months, and years, and just do the basic, boring bends to learn,” says Matt. “When I was young I didn’t have all the bills, mortgages, and things to worry about, so I could just dedicate years to learning this skill and stick with it.”

When he moved back to Minnesota, Matt brought some of the European-style techniques and materials with him, like a larger 15-millimeter glass tube rarely used by American neon artists due to how difficult it is to bend and properly fill. For Matt, the challenge is half the fun, especially when it comes to constructing one-of-a-kind, 3D art pieces—like the Sputnik-inspired sculpture Matt designed for the Veit Automotive Foundation Museum. The main body of the piece is seven-feet wide, with more than 60 neon spirals jutting out from the center. It took hundreds of feet of neon glass tubing to construct the piece that now hangs from the museum’s ceiling and illuminates the collection of antique cars below.

Neon’s staying power

Skyline Neon Signs in Minneapolis // Photo by Dan Murphy

Skyline Neon Signs in Minneapolis // Photo by Dan Murphy

Walking into Matt’s studio, it feels like you’ve taken a step back into a golden era of Americana. From floor to ceiling, the walls glow and blink with different shades of florescent pinks, blues, and greens. When Matt first started, Minneapolis was a hub for neon sign production thanks to cheap studio space, neon tubing suppliers, and an abundance of schools in the area that cranked out fresh talent every few weeks.

Today the industry has shrunk to a fraction of what it used to be. There are less than a dozen neon artists like Matt still left in town. Many of the schools and jobs are gone, due in part to the proliferation of LED lights that promised greater energy efficiency, lower costs, and easier maintenance.

“You don’t need a skilled set of hands,” says Matt. “With LEDs you just open up a box, peel off some double stick tape and lay the light source inside of whatever you’re lighting up. You take a skilled journeyman out of the payroll.”

He estimates that LEDs cut the neon business by 85 percent, but Matt says he’s not bored. There’s still too much work for that to happen. He just wrapped up a piece for the new Town Hall Station in Edina, and says Minneapolis’ booming Northeast and North Loop neighborhoods are a hotbed for businesses—like Wander North Distillery, Bar La Grassa, and Crisp & Green—whose owners flock to neon signage. The explosion of HGTV and shows like “American Restoration” and “American Pickers” thrust antique signs back into the spotlight and opened up people’s eyes to the possibilities, and money, in restoring old neon signs. That couldn’t be further from what motivates Matt, though.

An argon (blue) and neon (red) filled glass sign flickers to light // Photo by Dan Murphy

An argon (blue) and neon (red) filled glass sign flickers to light // Photo by Dan Murphy

“You’re never going to get rich doing this,” says the artist. “It’s an actual appreciation and enjoyment of having a job where you do something you like. You can’t really put a price tag on that.”

A good portion of Matt’s work comes from neon enthusiasts like himself—baby boomers and antique car buffs who don’t see the craft as a design trend, but rather a way of life and symbol of American craftsmanship.

“A guy that owns a garage of ’57 Chevys doesn’t want a Chinese-made LED sign because he didn’t grow up with that,” says Matt. “They want neon signs because that’s what they saw when they were kids.”

Over the years, the sign maker has watched the demand for neon fade in and out of popularity. Like the stock market, he expects to see that kind of fluctuation. Yet even as the industry cycles through its most recent changes, Matt is sure of one thing: The lights will never shut off for good.