Freshly Inked Interview with Meryl Pataky
What's a typical day in the life of Meryl?
I don't think I have many typical days, unfortunately. I yearn for routine, which can be difficult when you are a freelance creative. I also feel like my days are a lot more hectic than they need to be. I tend to get overwhelmed and sometimes I shut down when that happens- I will sometimes just park myself on the couch and just do nothing instead of the million things I have to do. Call it "self-care" haha. Despite the atypical schedule, I do find normalcy in my evenings and mornings. I cook myself breakfast every morning and make coffee. I spend time with my dog. I like to have a cocktail sometimes when I get home at night and watch some crime dramas.
So how did this all start, did you make your first piece for fun or did you always want to do this professionally?
I learned how to bend glass when I was getting my BFA here in San Francisco. I fell in love with the challenges of the medium and chose it as a tool in my belt to make sculptures. I made signs for a little while to help me build my shop out and make money for my artworks. Now, if I take commissions, I focus on original artwork and design for companies, private clients and brands while I make collections of work and installations for gallery exhibitions. When I do take sign jobs, it's a case by case basis. It depends on the client, the idea and my schedule at the time.
I first learned bending in a class in college. The class isn't near close enough to get you off and running so, really, you have to bother others that to it to teach you. It is still very much an apprentice/mentor situation; someone has to take you under their wing. I was lucky enough that my teacher in college, a bender by profession, was willing to do this for me and helped to find me equipment and teach me processing. I spent years working with the help of others, most of us do.
At the beginning what was the hardest aspect to learn?
When I teach, I tell people that bending the glass itself isn't really the hardest part because it becomes muscle memory after a while. The hard part, at first, is being able to tell what direction is up so that you do the bend in the right direction while following a pattern/design. You are rotating a tube in a fire so sometimes you can get lost. At this point in my career, 10 years, I find the hardest part to be the processing. There are a million and one things that could happen and so many variables with each unit you process. No matter how long a bender has been at it, you're constantly learning. It's one of those crafts where you have to do it for at least 5-10 years to even be good at it.
Have you ever gotten seriously injured? If yes, what happened?
I've cut myself deeply a couple of times and got 2nd degree burns and high voltage shocks from the neon power sources that isn't a huge deal though because they are low amperage. Nothing more serious than that. The most serious thing that I think can happen is to be shocked by the arch of my processing transformer. It is involved in the processing of the tube to get it to light, delivering a high current to the glass. It's 15,000 volts at 50 amps- it could kill you if it arched across you. We call it a "pole pig" the large cylindrical transformers on power poles. At the very least, it could detach something from you like a finger, for example.
Can you tell us more about 'She Bends Neon?'
She Bends is a traveling exhibition of female benders that create their own artworks. Some are veteran sign benders that have been in the trade for up to 40 years, others mid-level at around 10 years or approaching while still others are in their first few years. Each woman is chosen for their position in and commitment to the community, the quality of their work both skill-based and conceptually.
And you have an upcoming event "Not Long For This World" how did you come up with this concept?
Sometimes my shows' concepts are heavily researched and have an intention from the start. Other times, like with this show, the works or the visual of the exhibition occurs to me and I figure things out through the making of the work. Lately, I have been making work that speaks on the process of neon as well as the rise and demise of the trend, hence the title. The works and the show is very dark, despite illustrating a floral motif. I incorporate a blacked-out face of the tubes as well as "tar" drips, which symbolize a dying neon transformer which will leak tar. The show, as far as I've figured out this far, communicates childhood and motherhood, memory and nostalgia, dreams and the subconscious, a certain sorrow or morbidity/mortality.
What's one of your favorite pieces that you've created?
My favorite piece to date is the Key of Solomon Talisman I made back in September for Part 2 Gallery in September. It's an 8ft diameter circular Chaos Magic talisman. The act of making the work was an invocation of its meaning. It's all about craft and its magic. Aleister Crowly defines Magic as the act of making a change in accordance to your will. Any willed action in life is essentially magic and so, artists and craftspeople create magic. The talisman represents Success in Business/Trade. There are references to Freemasonry as well, which I'm strangely fascinated with, and the "Craft" of inner work they do. Their metaphors and symbolism linking the old stonemasons' philosophies that deal with inner work and craft are beautiful. Through creation and building, you can attain a high state of self-awareness and consciousness. The piece is homage to the great builders of our species/ancestry and the way they explored questions of mortality and their place in the universe through it. I subscribe to this pretty heavily. It's not lost on me that Freemasons are all male and women are not allowed. There are parallels in the work that nod to this because of the material I work with- neon has historically been male-dominated. Most trades have a history of being male-dominated. Any female identifying tradesperson has had to carve a path for themselves, elbows up.
You do live bending demos, during these demos do you feel nervous? Excited?
I love to teach so I feel excited, never nervous.
What made you want to teach others?
Despite how ubiquitous neon is in our everyday lives, so many know nothing about it. I was fascinated immediately and want to share that feeling with people. I also think that with an education of the trade comes a long lasting and prosperous future for it. Now that many design companies are trying to hop on the trend, I feel it's important for people participating in the consumption to know more about what they are buying so that they can do so consciously. There are many people marketing neon out there that are actually selling fake neon made from LED, which is horrible for the environment, and just a crappy version of what I do.
What inspires you the most?
My community of creators- glass blowers, other neon benders, the painters and writers. Their work and hustle pushes me to continue evolving and being part of the conversation.
Let's take a minute to talk about your tattoos, how many do you have and what was the first one you got?
I'm not sure how many I have at this point. I have my arms pretty well covered, my hands, a handful on my legs, a back-piece started and then little ones all around like ears, back of the neck etc. My first one was my butterfly tramp-stamp my mom took me to get (it was the 90's).
Any tattoo artist you'd like to give a shout out to?
Basically everyone at Idle Hand, SF. Xoxo.
If you had to make a piece to represent you how would it look? Or what would it say?
Every piece I make has, in varying amounts, some sort of personal narrative. The Key of Solomon Talisman really is a representation of me as a craftsperson/tradeswoman, which is a large part of my identity.
And lastly, where can we see more of your amazing work? What projects do you have in store this year?
We have another She Bends coming up at The Midway in San Francisco in October. I always have inventory at Pt.2 Gallery in Oakland. I may be showing at some fairs. I am participating in a talk with Gensler Architects in April. The talk is geared towards designers and consultants to discuss how to work with artists and value their work and specifically, how to commission neon works. I announce all of my projects on Instagram @merylpataky