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Pittsburgh neon sculptor brightens city with his art

| Monday, June 15, 2009

Tom Anthony was in elementary school when the idea of glass-as-art first fired his imagination.

A first-grader from Kittanning, he was part of a group of students touring the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. Agog at the craftsmen using long tubes to blow molten blobs into glass vessels, he slipped under the bleachers when his class moved to the next exhibit, silently studying the artisans at work for the next half-hour.

"Needless to say, I did get into a bit of trouble later," he recalled. "But I was just fascinated."

Anthony eventually learned — and still loves — glass-blowing, but his practical nature and a chance viewing of a neon sculpture in his 20s propelled him into business. His Greater Pittsburgh Neon Co. has been in Lawrenceville for 32 years.

"I got in at the right time in Pittsburgh," said Anthony, 57, of Spring Hill. "The movement of neon was already big on the West Coast and in New York City. My early years were spent in lots of meetings with architects and designers, making them comfortable in discussing neon as a lighting source, so that they in turn could talk to their clients about it."

Neon technically refers to the gas used in lamps bearing its name. In 1910, French inventor Georges Claude pioneered the concept of sealing the gas into a glass tube, and applying an electrical charge to electrodes mounted at either end. Though a combination of glass color and coating, and the use of such other gases such as argon and xenon, Anthony creates luminous hues on view at locations from Mountaineer Casino in West Virginia to Mt. Washington's "Bayer" sign.

He earned a psychology degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, then worked for a year at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. During a trip to Chicago he saw an abstract neon sculpture that he found ugly, but which triggered ideas about the medium's potential. He quit his job, taking a more flexible gig managing the newly opened Grand Concourse restaurant for a year and a half. By night, he apprenticed himself to a Washington, Pa., neon signmaker.

A neon craftsperson uses a crossfire gas torch to affix electrodes to either end of a glass rod. A larger torch called a "ribbon bender" heats a portion of the glass up to 650 degrees, allowing the artisan to shape it — all the while blowing into an attached rubber tube that maintains the vessel's diameter. The artisan then moves the work to the "bombarding" table, where he or she heats the vessel and vacuums out any impurities, and then pipes and seals the gas inside.

At the "aging" table, the neon is lit for two to three hours to make sure the color has set properly. Multiple pieces are assembled together, with rubberized black paint rendering bits invisible once the work is mounted. Anthony said he has worked on projects that have taken just two to three hours, as well as elaborate beer billboards on which he labored for 89 days.

Through the 1980s and much of the '90s, Anthony and his then-business partner often worked six or seven days a week, as did five staffers. The company made signs for such companies as U.S. Steel, and created displays for retailers Gimbels, Horne's and Kaufmann's, as well as dozens of small businesses around the region, particularly in Shadyside and Downtown.

Today, strings of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, have supplanted much of the company's business. While expensive to purchase, LEDs use less energy, and can be shaped into position quickly and easily by anyone.

"Working with neon is time-consuming," Anthony said, during a recent demonstration. His partner has moved on, and Anthony is Greater Pittsburgh Neon's sole staffer.

But he now has the freedom to choose his projects more carefully. Commissioned neon sculptures — particularly popular as holiday gifts — have grown from 15 percent to about 40 percent of his work in the past decade. Neon sculptures of lilies, peeled bananas, and animals dot his storefront gallery. Commissioned art ranges from small sculptures beginning at $225, to a $15,000 abstract Art Deco piece.

Several noted regional artists have worked with Anthony, including Kathleen Mulcahy, Ron Desmett and Jane Haskell, who tapped Anthony for her installation at the Steel Plaza Subway Station, Downtown, and her 2006 "Artist of the Year" show at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

"I can't bend or make neon myself. I do a pattern and Tom follows it for me when I need something," Haskell said. "He's an artist in his own right. And he's an excellent craftsperson."

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