Let's Talk Arts: Neon Artist Clayton Orehek - 27 East

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Let’s Talk Arts: Neon Artist Clayton Orehek

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The "links" at St. Andrews—narrow fairways, no trees, tall beach grass. MARSHALL WATSON

The "links" at St. Andrews—narrow fairways, no trees, tall beach grass. MARSHALL WATSON

author on Jun 7, 2019

In 2005, neon artist Clayton Orehek was hired by Sag Harbor resident Brenda Siemer to re-create the 1936 art déco Sag Harbor Cinema sign, which had deteriorated badly after being exposed to the elements for nearly 70 years. At the time, Ms. Siemer, who now lives in Vermont, was spearheading a fundraising campaign to create a new, duplicate sign which was mounted on the façade of the theater in October 2005.

Then in December 2016, fire destroyed much of the cinema. Mr. Orehek was brought in again to repair the sign which had been damaged when the façade came down. In a May 25 ceremony, the newly-refurbished Sag Harbor sign was illuminated once more. The nonprofit Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, which now owns the property, plans to open the restored movie theater this fall. Mr. Orehek recently talked about neon and the process of building the iconic Sag Harbor sign.

Q: Where do you do most of your neon work and who are your clients?

My shop is in Holtsville and my studio is in Riverhead. I work all around New York and have a lot of commercial work with lighting. A lot of it is LED now, which supplanted commercial neon. In the past two or three years I’ve gotten jobs for higher-end neon, not like pizza and bagel places, more like specialty shops and displays.

Q: Did you know about the Sag Harbor Cinema sign prior to building the replica in 2005?

My interest in the Sag Harbor sign comes from when I was a kid and I remember it as a child. I grew up in Center Moriches, but I was friends with Mike Schiavoni of the IGA when we were 14 or 15 and I spent time out there. Fast forward to 2005 when Brenda got ahold of me to re-fabricate it. By that time, I had done more sculpture work with neon on the East End and New York. They asked if I was interested in the project and I was, having been out there as a kid—then I got called again after the fire.

Q: Are there a lot of neon fabricators in the New York area? It seems like such a niche art form.

There are some in Queens and Manhattan. Through my interest in sculpture I learned a lot of other things. I learned to weld aluminum so I could redo that sign in '05, to do neon work and the metal work and spraying. I was very happy to do the Sag Harbor sign job because it used skills of neon, electrical work and metal fabrication. It was a cool melding of everything.

Q: What inspired you to get involved with neon fabrication?

I had done stained glass and sold a piece through [Sag Harbor gallery owner] Romany Kramoris in late '80s. I was doing more three-dimensional work and it seemed too static. With the neon you’re creating a colored light bulb which became its own element. I’ve made full scale butterfly chairs using ½ inch tubing. I wanted to make illuminated structures and neon is the perfect thing for that.

Q: How are the various colors achieved in neon?

Primarily, you use neon gas, which is in the red family—including dark red, pink and orange. Then there’s a coating inside the tubing that gives a different hue. Argon is the blue gas, you can make yellow, green, purple and four or five different tones of white.

Q: How difficult is the process?

When you want to make your letter, everything is in reverse. Look at a neon sign closely, on the one plane you view it forward, the second plane are the covered connections behind. Then you pull a vacuum and backfill the tube with neon or argon, a tiny tipping torch tipping heats the glass to melting temperature and you create a vacuum inside and the tube seals itself. When I was learning, it was a fantastically frustrating craft to do. When you break something you could just fling it against the wall.

Q: Where did you train in neon techniques?

I learned very informally. It was a closed field and people wouldn’t teach you. Then I met someone who had a shop. This was around 1990 or so. After six to eight months, he’d let me stay there at night and work. I was relentless. I made sure I learned with my left hand as my dominate side since it was a new thing. This guy folded his business, but by then I knew enough to do basics, and worked for a couple others and then went out on my own.

Q: Why do you think neon is such a closed art form?

I’ve started teaching people and I can’t say why it’s a closed thing. It’s a lot of work and practice on the part of the person learning. You put in months teaching someone then they drop it because they get burnt or are tired of it.

I would teach at a school for people who are truly interested, not someone just off the street.

Q: Are most people interested in neon now artists?

I went into it for creative aspects. I don’t know if you’d go in as a commercial sign maker. To say I’ll either be a dog catcher or bend neon, you’d definitely want to be a dog catcher.

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