Step into the luminous world of neon artist Esther Ruiz.
About seven months after she moved to New York, tired of having to supplement temporary studio-assistant gigs with barista work, Brooklyn-based artist Esther Ruiz, 29, did something risky: she answered a Craigslist job posting. "I didn't really know what I was getting into," she tells me. "It was a listing for a full-time studio-assistant position, and it just said to have some workshop skills. I'd worked in a shop before. I'd worked for a glass artist. I knew how to build stuff. I knew how to paint. When I showed up, it was a neon shop."
Ruiz and I are currently standing at a giant drafting table at Lite Brite Neon Studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, one of the last neon shops in New York City. Around us are glowing projects in various states of completion: a Momofuku Milk Bar sign rendered in cursive pink lights (Lite Brite makes all of Milk Bar's signage); a geometric neon chandelier inspired by the architecture of 19th-century painter Frederic Church's country home and studio; Ruiz's current assignment, a wall piece by contemporary artist Deborah Kass consisting of the words "Good Times" written in sculpted lights, mounted on canvas.
"I started doing these pieces when I'd just moved to New York and was super-scared."
Hundreds of thin tubes of colored glass line one wall, opposite a row of torches in various sizes. It's almost closing time, and remnants from the day's projects—blueprints for works in progress, letters formed from smooth, twisting glass—dot various workbenches.
"When I first started, I barely remembered neon is a gas," Ruiz says. Now she knows exactly which glass is used for each project and how neon is pumped into glass tubes to complete a sign or installation.
In the three years she's worked at Lite Brite, Ruiz has worked on pieces designed by artists Keith Sonnier, Cory Arcangel, Glenn Ligon, Deborah Kass, and occasionally Tracey Emin. Her first few weeks at the studio were spent learning the basics of packing and unpacking glass artworks and how to wire a piece safely ("I've been shocked by every transformer here"). Her first big project with Lite Brite was for Coach, which commissions the studio to make its holiday lights every year. Eventually, Ruiz began staying late to practice bending glass with a blowing tube in the studio's glass shop.
"If I'm not working on a project in the shop, fabricating and wiring, I assemble neon signs and art. If I'm not doing that, I'm out installing a piece. It varies wildly, from place to project," Ruiz says. "I didn't know anything about neon before I started. My first day here, I thought, 'Someday, I'm going to use neon in my own work.' And then maybe nine months later, I did."
Ruiz's work is a strange collision of geology and science fiction, as if she sources her materials by time-traveling to both a prehistoric age and a bright, Day-Glo future. On cylindrical pedestals of concrete or cement that Ruiz pours herself (more on that later), she constructs small tableaux of fluorescent plexiglass, glittering geodes and other stones, and curved neon lights. The titles of her sculptures could be lifted straight from the covers of pulp sci-fi novels: "Another Tomorrow," "Cosmic Woah," "Dream Space 9," "Second Sun," "New Stone Age," "Double Shadow."
Originally from Houston, the artist spent much of college bouncing around, attending an art school in Seattle for two years, Tulane for one semester, taking a year off in Baltimore, and finishing at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. It was a class at Rhodes that would provide a bedrock for her artistic practice.
"I took a geology course during my last semester, where we looked at core samples," Ruiz explains. "Geologists drill into the earth and pull out this cylindrical form, which can be several hundred feet long. They can look at all the different layers of the earth's crust, almost like the rings of a tree. They can determine the rainfall for a year, or if some kind of avalanche happened and a bunch of rocks shifted. You can learn a lot from layers of rocks."
"I'm just sick of seeing Tracey Emin rip-offs."
Eventually, Ruiz and I head to her studio in South Williamsburg. I expect a tiny, windowless space in an aging warehouse (nearly every emerging artist's studio I've been in looks like this), but the cab takes us to a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Last year, Ruiz won a lease on a studio through Spaceworks, a nonprofit that provides artists with much-needed rehearsal rooms and studios. Her studio is on the second floor of the Williamsburgh Library, with windows that overlook a leafy park and space enough for some heavy-duty equipment (a band saw, a chop saw, a sander).
On one workbench, she's laid out an array of little glass and plexiglass hoops in brilliant blues, pinks, and greens, each paired with slices of agate or quartz. "I get a lot of my stones from a store in the city called Evolution. They have creepy stuff, like dinosaur eggs, beetle wings, and bones. But they also sell reasonably priced rocks and shells," Ruiz says. "Then, the rest I get from street fairs or science museums. Sometimes people just give me rocks."
"I look at neon 40-plus hours a week."
Once the individual pieces are laid out, it's easy for Ruiz to conceptualize each small pedestal piece. "I started doing these pieces when I'd just moved to New York and was super-scared," she says, gesturing at the collection of stones and glass. "Not knowing much to do, I'd just sit at my desk with the things I accumulated and put them together. A lot of these glass tubes I made at Lite Brite, just hanging out after work, wanting to learn the trade. I like accumulating a collection of things that grab my attention, or that I see a simple, natural symmetry in, and laying them out in a way that I think works."
Once the glass, plastic, and stones are grouped together, Ruiz mixes cement or concrete and pours it into cylindrical molds. Once dry, these become her sculptures' bases, a shape that references her obsession with geological core samples and how they mark the passage of time. She also includes neon in many of her works, hiding the transformer and the wiring inside the base to create the illusion of a spontaneous light source.
Since incorporating neon into her practice, Ruiz has had five solo and two-person shows and has presented her work in dozens of group exhibitions. Her current show, Blind Spot, is on view at Station Gallery in Marfa, Texas, the tiny desert town that became an oasis of art galleries and artist studios after Donald Judd moved there in the 1970s. In the fall, a large installation of neon and colored glass will also go up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the visual art component of their Next Wave Festival of experimental performances.
Ruiz turns on the lights in a few of the sculptures, and the walls of her studio glow with highlighter shades. It seems, for the foreseeable future, neon is poised to be the guiding influence in Ruiz's practice.
"I look at neon for more hours than I sleep."
"It's funny how things have changed in my own work as a result of Lite Brite," she reflects. "There are a lot of projects where I think, 'Man, if this were my piece, I'd want to do all these things differently. I'm going to make this sign my way.' I'm sick of seeing neon art that's just, like, text. I'm just sick of seeing Tracey Emin rip-offs."
"I look at neon 40-plus hours a week," she adds. "I look at neon for more hours than I sleep. I understand the material in a way that I think a lot of other people who use neon in their work don't understand it. I feel like I know neon now."
Learn more about Esther Ruiz's illuminated works at estherruiz.com.