Ojai is all aglow. The source of illumination is Article 16: Selected Works by Lisa Schulte at Porch Gallery. The title is a mischievous wink at an Ojai city ordinance that outlaws neon signs and architectural elements with the exception of a two-foot-square OPEN sign. When told about the law, Schulte’s response is a playful, “Let’s rock this town.” (Note: you can’t spell “article” without “art.”) Schulte is the best kind of outlaw, thumbing her nose at the notion that neon has any boundaries at all.
In Schulte’s most recent work, glowing white neon is displayed with pieces of driftwood, palm husks and other natural objects that the artist found on the beach or in her backyard. It’s more accurate to say that the pieces found her. Whenever a piece calls to her, Schulte will take her time before transforming it into a work of art. “You’ve got to feel it,” Schulte says, so she waits for an idea to come to light — quite literally, because Schulte creates warm, intoxicating sculptures filled with light.
Light has always held great importance in Schulte’s life. When she was a child, an eye injury plunged her into darkness. She had to wear patches over both eyes for several months, leaving her to wonder if she would ever see again. When the patches were removed, Schulte was able to see. Although she remembers the light being painful at first, she realized that “light is the only thing we can exist in.” That profound childhood experience would chart the course of her life.
Her path began to take shape in the 1980s while Schulte was working for a major event planner. For one event Schulte envisioned creating a massive neon installation. Her boss loved the idea. Trouble was, Schulte couldn’t find anyone to create what she had in mind. Schulte had found her calling and she followed her passion to Kansas to study with master neon tube bender Freddie Elliot. In 1984, she opened Nights of Neon, a studio specializing in custom neon pieces for movies, TV, videos, events and corporate branding. Nights of Neon became a highly sought-after resource for entertainment giants like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, and Schulte earned the nickname Neon Queen. She wasn’t always comfortable with the title, but now the moniker is on her license plate, and her Instagram name is #theneonqueen.
In 2010, with her company going strong, Schulte turned her primary focus to creating fine art. Doing her own thing, Schulte says, “is kind of scary. It’s just me,” and she notes that her sculptures are “simple yet complicated.” Sculpting with neon is a combination of art and science. Because the glass tubes are so fragile, it can take twenty attempts to get one piece. “You’re pushing the limits of glass and how far it will stretch without breaking,” Schulte explains, adding that time is also a factor. “You have three to four seconds after taking [a tube] out of the fire before it hardens.” Working with neon and natural elements adds another layer of difficulty. For these particular works, because of the intense heat of the neon tubes, it’s impossible to shape them directly on wood or leaves without burning them. Instead, Schulte had to bend the tubes in the air, which is highly unusual (they are usually bent on a metal table).
Looking at Schulte’s work, neon and nature seem meant for each other. In “Continuation of a Dream,” a ball of driftwood is entwined with strands of white neon and held between two palm husks. Dreams are very important to Schulte, who has learned to trust in her unconscious. She dreams in colors and shapes that she often transfers to paper when she wakes. She’s always been a doodler of lines — curving, swirling, infinite lines. Some of those lines come to life as glowing strands of light. Schulte makes her dreams a reality. She’s an outlaw after all.
Article 16: Selected Works of Lisa Schulte through Oct. 8 at Porch Gallery, 310 E. Matilija Ave., Ojai. Listen to a talk with Schulte and Lisa Casoni of Porch Gallery, hosted by the Carolyn GlasoeBailey Foundation, at carolynglasoebaileyfoundation.org. The artist will also be at the gallery on Friday, September 29, 6-8 p.m. For more information, call 620-7589 or visit porchgalleryojai.com.