Neon Museum Oral Histories

Oscar Gonzalez | Neon Bender

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When he was a teenager, Oscar Gonzalez got a job sweeping the floors of a neon shop in his hometown of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. After all the workers had left for the night, Oscar would turn off the lights, switch on the neon signs, and pretend he owned a nightclub. He collected pieces of discarded glass tubing which the shop owner allowed him to use to practice welding. Soon, Oscar was learning to make angles and curves. Oscar thought his big chance had come when he was assigned to make a sign that said “VINO.” The owner went upstairs to his apartment, instructing Oscar not to leave until he was finished. Oscar was still working on the sign three hours later when the owner came downstairs in his pajamas and sent him home for the night. Despite this setback, Oscar became an accomplished neon bender, honing his skills on dozens of signs for the state of Jalisco’s most famous product, tequila. Oscar later worked in San Diego and Las Vegas. He has been a neon bender for Hartlauer signs in Las Vegas since 2013.

Dancing with Neon

Watching Oscar work has been compared to seeing a dancer perform. Oscar moves the glass around gas burners, gently softening and shaping the tube while constantly blowing air inside to prevent buckling. The intimate ballet requires a careful balance of heat, pressure, motion, gravity, and breath. Oscar is never completely sure how the glass will behave until he starts bending.

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Artist to Artist

Oscar has also translated the work of contemporary artists Victor Ehikhamenor and Tim Burton into neon signage for the Museum. Ehikhamenor has called Oscar “my brother,” exclaiming, “When I watch him work, it’s like he’s holding my own pencil.” Oscar welcomed the opportunity to bring the artists’ vision to life, scouring his shop for rare colors of tubing no longer being made.

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Still Glowing

After more than two decades working with glass, Oscar is still passionate about his craft. He continues to learn and grow. Oscar looks forward to being a neon bender for many decades to come.

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This program is funded in part by Nevada Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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