Richard William Wheater: The Practice of Poetics

by Karen Donnellan

The following article was published in Glass Art Society news Spring 2014 Volume 25 , Issue 1

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Site, Time and Transience

Richard William Wheater’s site-specific neon artwork is marked by its vibrancy and its sincere connection to site and its audience. Having grown up in a small working class town in the northern England, he consciously strives to make and present work in a way that is accessible to a broad audience, even those not familiar with contemporary art. For the same reason, he shies away from tools like artist statements, which act as a barrier, “I want people to interpret [my artwork] as they see fit… I don’t want to exclude anybody. It’s always been important to me ever since I started writing lyrics.” Wheater’s years as a lead singer and songwriter in a local band are the foundation for the poetry in his work and have influenced his love of song lyrics as titles. Case in point are his pieces I’m Electric, you’re Electric and the endearing 12 Months of Neon Love, which was developed in collaboration with Victoria Lucas. 12 Months of Neon Love, is comprised of a series of 12 well-known love song lyrics, each written in glowing neon, and displayed on the roof on the Neon Workshop, one lyric per month from 2012-13. The massive piece was installed in clear view of the Leeds-London train line and garnered… an unwitting audience of thousands. The temporal and ephemeral nature of Wheater’s artwork is made concrete by exquisite photography and self-published books. These books are beautiful artefacts that testify to the power of his artwork.

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Take Them and Us, another ephemeral site-specific project, which was installed at various places including Yorkshire Sculpture Park, London Glassblowing studios, a field somewhere in the New Forest, and on a small Falmouth fishing boat. For this project, Wheater built a small portable furnace to bring to the installation sites. At each site, birds were sculpted in front of the furnace and immediately launched into the air from Wheater’s gloved hands. The birds, which Wheater spent endless hours studying and learning to sculpt, were simultaneously freed and moving headlong to their demise.

His publication, The Namesake Book, contains beautiful shots of the different sculptural and performative elements in action; the making, the energy, the place, and the moments of release. This book, like many of his other publications, also contains essays from established critics and fellow artists, introducing the project and commenting on its relationship to the particular site.

 Neon Workshops

During Wheater’s undergraduate studies at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) in Scotland, he travelled to Alfred University in upstate New York for an exchange program. There, he had his first experience with neon via its grand maestro, Fred Tschida. His first classes left a deep impression on Wheater, and Tschida is still counted as one of his biggest influences. After graduating from ECA, Wheater saw no apparent venues in the UK where he could pursue neon in a creative environment, so he undertook a 2-year apprenticeship in a commercial neon shop. There, he learned to process neon signs. After two years in the business, he had gained enough

experience to venture out on his own. After leaving the neon industry in 2008, Wheater opened the Neon Workshop in the centre of his hometown of Wakefield, and it continues to grow to this day.

Wheater is someone who wastes no words. He speaks with intention, pensive pauses and no punctuations of eh or um; his workspace is equally precise and eloquent. Wheater is an unwavering believer in Le Corbusier’s ethos that everything in one’s home should be both practical and beautiful – and everything is. One might find the workshop’s clean, minimal and sparse colour-coded functionality unusual for a neon shop, which are often dark, dirty spaces, and devoid of natural light to enhance the visibility of the flames. But Wheater opted for an airy, open plan

space with nothing extraneous. Everything is modular or on wheels, which allows the workshop to host six gallery shows every year. The bombarder, set up behind the white line was built by Wheater and is nothing less than magnificent. Encased in clear Perspex, it was made with an artist’s vision as opposed to an engineer’s. All the bells and whistles are made of flame worked glass, including the knobs and gas canisters, which hold the – as yet – invisible neon, helium and argon. Wheater has also built a beautiful mobile bombarder for his travelling workshops. For him, the line between art, craft and design is a blurred one. He is equally interested in “celebrating a piece of machinery… as a piece of bronze.” Matt Dilling of Lite Brite Neon in Brooklyn, NY has been instrumental to the set up of the the Neon Workshop, and has assisted and advised Wheater over the years. Another important figure is Julia Bickerstaff who co-teaches many of its classes, and has also acted as a mentor to Wheater. The combination of her vast technical background and Wheater’s artistic sensibilities expose students to the perfect balance between technique, science and art.

Teaching

An important aspect of the Neon Workshops manifesto is to educate and challenge the common misconceptions of the craft of neon. The plight of neon is a personal passion for Wheater and it is intrinsic to his work as an educator and an artist. Several of his works highlight the literal value of neon, perhaps none more directly than What am I?, a series of three panels that spell out the following riddles in neon:

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What am I?

I burn the brightest,

Yet last the longest,

I’m cold cathode,

One hundred Years Old,

You breathe me in,

And sing me out,

Team me up with glass

And electric to shout.

What am I?

I make things exciting,

I give songs a setting,

I make the good – bad

And the bad appealing,

I’m new but I’m old,

In forming planets,

I play a pivotal but

Mysterious role.

What am I?

I’m inert and noble,

100 percent recyclable,

I’m high voltage,

Though volts only shock,

Dying skills fashion form,

An arc of lightning

Through vacuum

Excites a buzzing storm.

The proper name for neon is actually cold cathode lighting. Originally neon was the only gas used to create the quintessential neon affect, but now other gases like argon, helium, xenon and krypton are employed depending on the effect of light required. Signs filled with actual neon gas are recognisable for their unrelenting red/orange glow. Neon is highly efficient and 100% recyclable (that is, it never burns out), however the use of neon has declined with the introduction of mass-produced LEDs. Neon is still made entirely by hand, which affects its initial cost considerably. However, over time, the initial expense of running neon is recuperated very quickly. Many large companies that ditched neon in favor of LEDs in recent years are now realising their mistake and reinstalling the original neon signs.

As I type, Wheater and his mobile studio are in Reykjavik, Iceland facilitating the landmark Mobile Neon Workshop under the aurora borealis. This particular venture was scheduled to coincide with the peak of a twelve-year solar cycle; probably the best time to see the electric phenomenon of the aurora borealis. This epic celestial display is complimented by the presence of Czech artists (and personal hero of Wheater’s) Magdalena Jetelova as an artist in residence. Wheater will also be presenting a new work: Northern Lights, which consists of four defunct advertising screens from the London Underground, installed with borealis inspired neon. The poignancy of creating synthetic light under the planet’s ultimate light show is not lost on Wheater. These are the poetics of a holistic art practice.

Wheater’s approach is based on a belief that the future of glass as a creative medium, lies in bringing it beyond the gallery. He proposes that by incorporating practices encompassing site-specific installation, intervention and performance, it can become relevant to a broader audience. Wheater is a prolific and dedicated artist and his inclusive and holistic approach to art-making is resulting in an oeuvre of vivid, engaging, accessible work.