Brisbane Bender Featured at Neon Speaks

Holden neon
Michael Blazek has devoted his life to creating and preserving neon. The above project of his shows a 1952 Holden, an Australian auto. The client was ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ George, who drove such a car, and hung the artwork in his West End pub in Brisbane.

Brisbane, Australia, never blazed with neon like Las Vegas does, or Los Angeles, or even San Francisco, or New York’s Great White Way. But its neon is distinctive, and Michael Blazek will celebrate it during this year’s Neon Speaks Festival and Symposium.

His Zoom tour, 'Mid-Modern Neon in Brisbane,' happens at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 10. The festival itself, with live and virtual events, takes place September 9, 10, 11, 17, and 18.

“My topic springs from a bus tour that I’ve given four or five times,” says Blazek, an American who studied neon with his father and later worked in New Zealand and then Australia. “We drive around Brisbane in a bus viewing the iconic signs that are still out in the marketplace in the nightscape.”

Diving girl
Michael Blazek created ‘Diving Girl’ with Marcus ‘Tiki Beat’ Thorn for display at the Palm Springs home for a couple who are “avid members of the Brisbane modern group,” Blazek says. He adds: “Marcus cut out the shape and painted the girl onto it, and I overlaid it with neon.” Photos courtesy of Michael Blazek

Other festival events include an in-person tour at Neon Works in Oakland with owner Jim Rizzo, an in-person 'Neon Curiosity Lounge' at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, with neon artists and signmakers, and a walking tour of neon in Alameda.

The festival is put on by San Francisco Neon. Organizers Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna present neon events throughout the year, and the festival has become a major international event.

Blazek, who learned glass bending in 1981, worked in New Zealand, then founded a neon firm in Seattle. He moved to Australia in 1990 where he and Duncan Read own Neon Signs Australia.

  Blazek at work
Michael Blazek works on a historic neon-sign recreation for a shop on Beale Street in Memphis. Did you see the recent movie ‘Elvis’? Then you saw this sign. Blazek adds: “The props department at Warner Brothers made the sign box and had a sign writer paint the white text, and we overlaid it with neon as in the photos from the era.”

The firm does signs of any kind, but it is clear that neon signs are closest to Blazek’s heart. They do new signs, repair old ones, and scoop up abandoned signs before they are lost forever. They also do glass bending for fine artists.

“We cater to the retail industry, so we sell directly to restaurants, pubs, businesses,” he says. “We also do a lot of work for architects and designers who have a client who requests neon.”

“A lot of our work is for artists who want to use neon, and we’ve done some amazing large-scale commissions for artists. Obviously I appreciate, and throw myself at those jobs because they are so much more interesting, and the work is more rewarding than putting up a beer sign in someone’s cafe.

“I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that, because the actual work of bending the tube, no matter what you’re making, is really stimulating and creative.”

“So it still remains very challenging and rewarding to do it. But when I know that my work is going to be viewed in an art gallery, and the artist trusts me to recreate their drawings in neon, I take special care to make sure that it’s just as good as we can possibly make it.”

“Rialto Theatre was constructed in 1926 in Art Deco style. The neon sign was probably added in the ‘60s or ‘70s. The roof blew off in a 1992 storm, but the neon survived. The owner refurbished the theatre into retail spaces, and it is no longer a theatre,” Blazek says.

Blazek became interested in modernist design thanks to the MAD group (it stands for modern architecture and design), he says, an informal organization of modernist fans spearheaded by Chris Osborne, who publishes 'Brisbane Modern' magazine. Blazek has created several neon works for Osborne’s modern home.

“The group in Brisbane is very active. They absolutely love modern architecture, and design, and furniture. There are really nice examples of mid-century modern houses that have been restored,” Blazek says.

At a MAD event, Blazek says, “I was asked to give a neon demonstration, and at the end of it I presented Chris with a neon that just read ‘Modern’ in lowercase letters. This was in 2015, and at the time Chris had always wanted a neon but didn’t have one.”

Unfortunately, Blazek says, “There are very few 1950s or '60s neon signs left in place in Brisbane.”

“HOME Show is from the State Library Queensland exhibition titled 'HOME: A Suburban Obsession.' Anita Lewis is an avid modernist, works at SLQ, and she commissioned me to make the neon for the exhibition,” Blazek says. “I installed it in her 1950s home in the suburb of Tarragindi.”

“I’ve been working really hard to educate people about how important it is to salvage the old neon signs because there simply aren’t that many.”

Blazek collects neon as well as building it and selling it. “As I drive through Brisbane in the evenings. I just note where businesses are that have a neon sign, and I make a mental register of them. And if I see the building listed for sale, I will call or stop and register my interest in saving the sign,” he says.

He’s even thinking of opening his country’s first neon museum. It would be great to open it before 2032, when Brisbane hosts the Olympics.

“We’re hoping that the powers that be will realize they need to have a number of visual attractions for the people that will be traveling here to try and make their visit as memorable as possible,” he says.

“There is a lot of salvaging and restoration of neon going now, going on all around the world,” Blazek says—“in Europe, especially in North America. And I’m trying to do my part to see that it happens in Australia as well, especially in Brisbane.”

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