Detail

Wiese Thrives as Artist-in-Residence at Las Vegas' Neon Museum

To tourists arriving daily in Las Vegas, viewing the well-lit signs along the Vegas Strip, downtown and many places around town is a centerpiece for the glitz, glamour and allure of the city.

Wiese Residency Neon Museum 2017

But capturing that lasting look, feel and the creativity that’s required can be like someone’s luck at the blackjack, craps or poker table — it takes work and it is often elusive. Hotels and casinos come and go. Construction crews quickly build the next big thing. Signs are taken down and something shiny and new takes its place.

Enter the Neon Museum, a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to preserving the city’s neon signs once they’re deemed ready for the next phase of life. The museum houses many of the original attention-grabbing signs that have contributed to Las Vegas’ identity and history. The Neon Museum houses its sign collection in what is affectionately known as “the boneyard.”

Allison Wiese, a sculptor, associate professor of art and the current chair of the University of San Diego’s Art, Architecture and Art History Department, relishes its existence.

“I visited the museum on a research trip two summers ago and immediately knew I had to go back to spend more time with the collection,” she said. “My work as an artist is often concerned with scale, dislocation or recollection, and the physical and intellectual residue of history. The Neon Museum’s boneyard of retired historical signage from Las Vegas offers an amazing collision of material, time and distance.” 

Art Professor’s Las Vegas Artist Residency 

In June, Wiese spent the full month delving deeper. She was selected from more than 20 applicants for the museum’s national artist in residency, a program underwritten by the federal National Endowment for the Arts and the state-funded Nevada Arts Council. She received a stipend, travel allowance, lodging and studio space. She examined, started and created different art projects, expanded her knowledge, shared her work, networked and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“A month was enough time to better understand the museum’s collection and dip into its archive, as well as to begin to understand Las Vegas better, introducing myself to the arts community there as well as the museum’s greater audience,” she said. “I delivered an artist’s talk and held an open studio and engaged in many more informal interactions. The residency left me with the beginning of a longer-term relationship with the museum and the city, which is a fascinating place.”

The Neon Museum was quite welcoming to Wiese. A panel jury selected the resident artist and her application stood out.

“The jury were particularly interested in Allison’s experience in combining sculpture, poetry and signage,” said Cynthia Behr Warso, the museum’s director of education and engagement. “And this statement in particular resonated with the mission of the Neon Museum: ‘I create poetry out of common things, repurposing and repositioning common materials to make new meaning.’”

Wiese wasted little time producing quality, creative work during the month.

“I make both fast and slow work, so the duration of the residency allowed me to conceive and fabricate a neon work. I drew a lot. I made sculptures that illuminate vintage luggage with flashing and chasing lights, creating both finished pieces and conjectural proposals for future works,” Wiese said. “Most excitingly for me is that I began a project I'll continue work on back on campus. I'm casting mid-century concrete screen blocks — the decorative perforated cinder-block units you may see in some older homes in San Diego, but which proliferate in Las Vegas' classic residential and commercial architecture — out of sugar.”

She built individual blocks and even texted a USD chemistry faculty member about the sugar’s mixture recipe. Wiese’s long-term goal is to scale up production with a better mold in place. She hopes USD students can devise a mold solution and can help fabricate larger blocks to create a walled structure for potential public viewing in Las Vegas’ downtown area, “perhaps, in the courtyard of one of the closed motel structures that were part of the inspiration for this investigation.”

Her Las Vegas immersion was a constant source of inspiration. “This was an opportunity to get to know the places that created the condition that made these signs what they are. There are conditions in Las Vegas that led to an arms race of beautiful signage and I got to know more about the context in which the signs came to be. The culture of signage is much higher, even cinder-block buildings on the outskirts of downtown have better and more visually compelling signage. It was a nice environment to be introduced to; some of the work I produced is as much related to big ideas about Las Vegas and context of the signage as it is to the specifics of the neon signs.”

Collaborative Possibilities

Her openness fit the museum’s desire to attract new audiences. Warso praised Wiese’s artist talk and open studio events, saying Wiese was “enlightening, inspiring and thought provoking.”

The Neon Museum acquired one of Wiese’s neon works for its collection and the residency could spark a connection between the museum, Wiese and USD. “The aim of the museum’s education/arts outreach program is to build relationships with cultural institutions, so we are excited about the potential of collaborating on future projects with Allison and USD developing from the residency experience,” Warso said.

Wiese suggested the potential development of interdisciplinary coursework for USD students that would include travel to Las Vegas and nearby land art sites. Las Vegas’ relationship to architecture pedagogy and unique opportunities in visual arts and design, cultural history and other disciplines also await.

This time, though, it was Wiese absorbing knowledge and expressing things her way, not unlike others who visit Las Vegas. “A fascinating month left me alive to the incredible breadth of ways that people arrive in the desert with expectations of something happening. There’s a hyperbolic intent to enjoy themselves, whatever that means to them — the range is remarkable.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photos in the slideshow are courtesy of Allison Wiese and there are images and links to images that have been provided by The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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