In this series of interviews with artists, I meet many people with a creative spirit who are able to build successful careers around making art. Each one is unique and clearly focused on art being the center of their lives. Each one is happy.
Kenny Greenberg is an artist and a small artisan manufacturer in Long Island City, New York who works in neon. In a career that spans 36 years, he is able to do a mix of work that allows him to take on jobs that interest him as well as his own creative design projects.
Kenny, how do you self identify?
When people ask me what I do, I usually say, “I make neon.” Then they stop for a minute and then they say, “You mean like neon lights and signs?” I go further to say, “I work in a special area of neon where I work with artists, in film and theater.” I can do conventional projects but they tend to be more on the eclectic side. I’ve done most much of the local neon in Long Island City.
What usually happens is that I get brought in to figure out how to do something or to work with teams as a consultant. A good example of that is in theatre. I will start with designers to figure out if their ideas are feasible, what are the best colors.
Sometimes they ask me, “Got anything cool?” and I have to create a Frankenstein lab.
Next, I will work in the scenery shop on the practical side to see how the pieces fit and how to take them apart. I tend to think “modularly” and design pieces that can function, travel, and stand alone independently.
When the piece is on stage, I will work with production crews on the specifics of how a piece fits in with the rest of the set or to reassemble scenery transported how to transport stuff without the neon.
Sometimes I am brought in as an advisor to crews running the production. There are always tweaks and changes to be made. For example, in one production we discovered one character’s costume was brushing past the neon piece and causing a problem so we had to reconfigure the piece.
When I work with other artists, I function like an enabler. I help make their crazy projects happen. I do free form pieces and a lot of projects that are one shot deals.
Neon is a slow process. It can take 5 - 10 minutes to shape a curve and the challenge is to preserve the free form sense.
What are the benefits and challenges of being an artist and…?
When I first started out years ago, I thought I would be making art all the time. The business part of my life was the weakest area. I didn’t have this kind of training. I had some prior administrative background from working in social services.
I’m also like a lot of artists who are really good at marketing their friends’ work but not their own. I’m not good at selling or marketing myself. The funny thing is that the more involved I became in other people’s work my own work, I also grew into other people’s work my own work and I would get invited to be in shows.
In terms of business, a strange phenomenon would always happen. During tough times or when business was slow, I would work on marketing. But before I could use any of it, I would get a job.
Getting involved in theatre made this easier because it is a tight knit community, everybody depends on each other, there is a lot of support and you get this feeling that you are all in the same boat. My name started to be passed around and so I made work because I was under pressure to create.
Now I feel comfortable doing all aspects of my business. I do a lot of selling and I don’t feel the need to prove or justify myself anymore after being an individual artist and a small artisan manufacturer for 36 years.
I enjoy the experience and process of working with lots of artists that range from being internationally known to pre emerging.
I like being an empty vessel to help them realize their vision.
Sometimes I am a collaborator. It stimulates my own creativity in solving problems because I learn things I didn’t think about before. The “Aha!” moment may happen days or months after my time with artists. This is especially true when I do conservation work. It is a very different experience to see a work of art and to have it in your hands to reconstruct it. It forces you to be in the artist’s head. I believe there is an exchange of some kind that happens.
A big benefit is that I am in charge of my own time and I am my own boss. I am at the point in my life where I can pick and choose the jobs I want. A challenge is that I work more than a conventional job and I have 5 -6 bosses who are my clients.
Another challenge is balancing work I want to create with my jobs.
I had to learn not to be anxious about time management. A very gifted chiropractor/healer helped me with this. Because of all of my deadlines, I always needed more time. He helped me to realize that the world would not collapse if I asked for time which is now something that I do.
What are you working on now?
I built a neon sign for the Glass Menagerie on Broadway. It is to be carried across the stage in the rain so I had to figure out a way to make it waterproof and remotely controlled. So far, it’s working and I’m making a second sign for them.
I am in the process of installing some original pieces for the windows of 2 Plaxall buildings in Long Island City.
I just finished a project with Mierle Laderman Ukeles and I am doing a project with J Magid who did interviews with CIA operatives. I am turning some of their phrases into neon.
I am doing some pieces of my own design for a wall mural for Pepsi.
I am working on an architectural project with American Copper which includes doing signs and fixtures for them.
For the Broadway show, “War Paint”, I am creating Elizabeth Arden’s signature in neon where the actress will actually be sitting on it like a couch.
That’s it for this week.
It is an intentional mix of outside work and my own designs.
I got tired of putting off ideas and things I wanted to do so I took out my list and started digging in.
Where can people see more of your work?
What advice can you give to emerging artists or people with an inner artist?
It’s a trite saying but true: You will be the happiest and have your greatest success doing what you love to do the most.
We are lucky that we live in a place where we can do this.
Are you happy, Kenny?