Today we’d like to introduce you to Ben Livingston.
Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
My parents loaded my formative years with enough art and culture to shoot me out of south Texas like a bullet from a gun.
Until then, the pressure would build as KPFT’s airwaves filled my room with a radiant atmosphere serving up the most interesting content that the 1970’’s could muster. Profound thinkers spun the wheels of my teenage imagination like a hit dog. Brilliant story-tellers and songwriters like Kinky Friedman and Terry Allen and poets like Ginsberg and Bukowski filled my head with new ideas and most importantly, permission to be myself.
My mom was a major aesthetic influence on me throughout my childhood. She brought in fine artists from all over to show their work at our house in Victoria for art shows she’d call Polly Lou’s Art-Tea Parties. She later designed crazy-elaborate parties all over Texas. As a kid, I learned about building sets for my grandmother at the little theater in San Antonio, and later as a young man for Polly Lou’s Parties. In 1980, Washington Project for the Arts commissioned us to turn their entire space into a Texas dance hall. And boy did we. This shindig included a sawdust dance floor, a Terlingua chili champ, a Gilley’s mechanical bull and Terry Allen banging out “Truckload of Art” with just about every Lubbock musician who ever yodeled at a flatland moon.
The WPA also introduced me to neon in the form of a big 1950s Dutch Masters Cigar sign that we hung over the dance floor. I’ll never forget how I was smitten by the linear quality of that glowing neon. That’s when I realized the possibility of drawing with light. Like an electric crayon.” Back home in our little library I found one book called “Let There Be Neon” by Rudi Stern. Neon was going to be my thing one day… Little did I know that ten years later, I’d be in Rudi’s second book.
After an arduous apprenticeship and stint in New Zealand as a Journeyman neon glass bender, I opened and operated a business, Beneon, creating and restoring neon signs for Austin landmarks like the Continental Club, Threadgills, Amy’s Ice Cream, Broken Spoke and Grove Drugs. I also designed numerous sets with neon for film and TV, namely Austin City Limits. But at some point, I reached commercial overload and shut the business down to concentrate on my real calling, art. That’s when I contacted Stephen Antonakos and Rudi Stern, who eventually became mentors.
My first big break garnered international recognition in 1988 when my friend, Frank Roberts (a self taught radio engineer) and I created “Neon Mural #1” (video of it and how it was made is on youtube), a 14′ X 40′ homemade – computer animated neon mural that we created as an anti-war protest which plays out as a story of the end of the world through a child’s eyes. What was unique about this mural, beyond its social message, was how Frank’s computer made the neon story move smoothly like a cartoon rather than a flashing neon sign. Neon Mural #1 was an instant landmark attracting millions of drive-by’s over its 22 year lifespan… Its first claim to fame though, was beating the Statue of Liberty, taking the coveted IES Paul Waterbury international lighting design award. Frank screamed “Oh my God, we’ve won an Oscar for a home movie!”
In 1993 I received an NEA fellowship which furthered neon color discoveries within argon filled tubes. I’d already developed my own unique style of pulverizing rocks that contain phosphorescent minerals. This enabled me to produce rich opalescent hues that have become the essence of my work called Spirit Houses or Spirit Antennas.
Within two years, museum exhibits and public art commissions had my career in full swing. I’d become an avid cyclist, now racing, in training as a sprinter, I was at full stride when the walls came tumbling down around sudden symptoms then diagnosis of FSH muscular dystrophy. When asked what I could expect at 60, the neurologist’s cool reply was simply “You’ll probably still be able to swallow.” It was as if someone pulled a lever and I fell through the floor into a depression that would not let go until I’d build solid internal foundation over what had always just been a house of cards that I had cobbled together to get by. When you’re young and excited and growing fast, you overlook these things. My fate wasn’t going to let me go that easy. I’d have to adapt to the concept of “enough”.
In 2009, after travels to Asia with my family, quiet neon commission work and a lot of meditation and song writing, the music bug got hold of me. Suddenly I was in full bloom, with a band, playing at all the best places in Austin. The next five years of this obsession produced three albums as my venue stretched all the way to the east coast. Manhattan was the final stop. That was enough.
Most recently, San Angelo museum director, Howard Taylor and I developed the idea of a traveling exhibition featuring my Spirit Houses”, neon “Spirit Antennae” encased in reclaimed materials from old collapsed structures. We premiered the show at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, where it was accompanied by historical objects from the San Angelo area.
Building on the concept developed for the exhibition in San Angelo, the exhibition moves around, keeping a few select pieces from the original San Angelo exhibition, but creating new pieces and installations relevant to each new host community.
I discovered spirit houses during travels around Southeast Asia, shrines built to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors and nature, smaller versions of Thailand’s Wat temples. A life-changing experience, I found myself searching for a way to combine my neon with a respectful nod to previous generations in Texas. my neon pieces are “cradled” in wood, excavated from old houses and barns in Texas, and often feature old-growth,longleaf pine, evoking ghosts or spirits from the past.
Since San Angelo, the Spirit house show has exhibited at the Beeville Art Museum and is scheduled to open at the Coachella Art Center in California in May.
The circuitous route of three and a half decades of being and making art – so many friendships, creations and stories in places I’d have never been privy to. The fact that my work and I make our way all over the world to such interesting institutions and collections like Mick Jagger’s is testament to what I’d imagine my original role model, George Plimpton saying: “Going is knowing!”
Turning 60 last summer was a very interesting rite of passage from that doctor’s forecast of my demise. But he we was dead wrong! Not only could I guzzle along side any beer bonging frat boy, but I regularly swim half miles at Barton Springs – year round.
What have I learned from all this? My life is my finest artwork and I refuse to be curated by bad news.
Please tell us about your art.
I like being on to something. That’s why my life plays out like a surf safari, filled with hundreds of seasons, paddling into countless waves of random curiosity coupled with an obsession to report the experience. I’m pretty sure it’s no different than paleo-man drawing epic hunt and creation stories all over cave walls.
As a boy, my father and I used to sit together in a delightfully smelly wild onion patch on the banks of the Guadalupe River. He read Rudyard Kipling stories to me while I fidgeted around, imagining the life of an Indian cobra-fighting mongoose. One day, as Dad was reading away, I put my face down in the onion grass for a “bug’s eye view.” There I was, onion smell in my nose, breeze on my skin, watching the grass stir the blue sky, and I saw that the space between the leaves was as real and active as the things I could see. That space—where the invisible force and fragility of nature is in direct relationship with the tangible world—inspires the hell out of me. It’s the undercurrent of everything I do.
The way I see it, the universe and everything in it is constantly in motion, doing its thing, so everything is a work in progress. There is an inexplicable intelligence within this movement that is creation. We are capable of connecting to this universal consciousness through our intuition, which ignites thought, which generates imagination, which creates ideas.That’s how the match gets struck.
Bringing my ideas to fruition is where personal observations meet pragmatism. It’s like I’m stirring together my life experience with skills and materials picked up along the way. After that, the artist in me goes to that alchemical place where everything fuses into a beautiful concoction that I keep mixing up with my intuition until it makes sense.
Early on in my career, I loved how I could draw with neon like an electric Crayola. But the extraordinary way neon light can transform a space from the banal to the meditative swept me away and I realized I would have to remove the megaphone from the screaming advertiser’s neon by elaborating on neon’s subtleties. Through a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, I invented a process where I introduced UV sensitive phosphorescent minerals and rare earth elements into neon tubes so that they glow with opalescent color. That glow is emitted from within an argon gas filled neon tube, which has been forged using a unique hot glass sculpting style. When they are finished, these “Nightsticks” or “Spirit Antennae”—depending on the sculptural use—achieve that magic I was searching for and transform a space from banal to meditative.
The end result I’m looking for is to condense an entire downtown nightscape, a shimmering cosmos, within the contents of a single electrified glass vessel. I strive to create an intimate experience of discovery, within the observer, by introducing the spaces between.
Can neon be the perfect metaphor for the force and fragility of nature? That’s where I’m headed.
Choosing a creative or artistic path comes with many financial challenges. Any advice for those struggling to focus on their artwork due to financial concerns?
I have four valuable things to share about the financial part of being a sensitive creative person in a cold corporate world…
1. My most useful and pragmatic piece of advice to anyone aspiring for anything in the material world is to keep your overhead down and stay out of debt if at all possible. Consider debt as shackles to your creative freedom.
Know your limits, don’t bite off more than you can chew.. I see a lot of young people getting sucked into this new branding concept which at it’s core is simply an advertising scheme where you build an illusion of success around a product. Making art isn’t about that kind of bullshit (unless that’s your intention), it’s about trying to tell truth from your perspective. Understanding that you can’t make a plant grow by pulling its leaves is an exercise in the virtue of patience. It can be a hard lesson. Give plenty space and time for things (yourself, love, projects) to grow fully, organically, otherwise you might find yourself like I did, teetering on a very wobbly house of cards.
2. Find a mentor who’s very knowledgeable and experienced about what you’re interested in – one with wisdom to help guide you. Apprenticeships are awesome. If you find a good one take it seriously and get humble, it’s worth it, you’ll see. Don’t be shy to pick up a broom or anticipate what the maestro’s needs are by lending a hand (without being a nuisance). Open your mind and lower your expectations and you’ll be amazed by the outcome.
3.Have a terrific idea for a project that you can’t afford? Find a grant writer, that’s what I did… Or better yet, use crowdfunding. That wasn’t around back in the day when I needed working capitol, but what a wonderful way to promote an idea and get it funded!
4. Never underestimate the value of sincere enthusiasm, good manners and an old fashioned thank you letter!
How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
My next Spirit House exhibition will open in May, 2019 at the Coachella Valley Art Center in Indio, CA.
To make an appointment to see my work or book a speaking or performance engagement please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more info website at www.benlivingston.com – a good place to see the work and learn more about my public speaking etc..
People can support my work by purchasing it, hiring me for a speaking engagement and bringing my Spirit House exhibit to your local museum!
- Website: www.benlivingston.com
- Phone: 5124749980
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/neonspirithouse/?hl=en
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Ben-Livingston-NeonLight-Sculptor-68855636270/?ref=settings
- Other: https://glasstire.com/2018/01/24/ben-livingstons-spirit-houses-at-san-angelo-museum-of-fine-arts/
Carrington Weems, Paul Bardagjy