Light & Energy
by Audrey Dimola
Published in Ins&Outs Magazine, Vol. II, Issue 2 – August 2008 (pg. 18)
“In the late 1940s, he was driving cross country,” Kenny Greenberg begins, imparting a story an elderly LIC resident had once shared with him, “and he pulled into Las Vegas and there was this huge town with all these lights. He went to sleep thinking, ‘I’m going to explore this town tomorrow,’ and he said when he woke up in the morning, the town was gone.” He pauses for effect, and then says with a laugh, “And I love that image!”
Long Island City may not be a city of lights to rival Las Vegas, but if you filled it with all the neon lighting Kenny Greenberg has created over the years, perhaps it could be. Brooklyn-born Greenberg is the founder of Krypton Neon, which is actually the only neon lighting manufacturer in New York with a “Green” designation in the “Made in NYC” database. Greenberg, who originally wanted to be a cartoonist, worked as an administrator in the Special Education field for five years, supervising programs in art, dance, and music therapy, before the position took him “further and further away from working directly with kids,” and became “more political and less satisfying.”
“At the same time, I was looking for something more fulfilling, something that explored the arts – but I also come from a family of scientists, so I sort of had this science-engineering background,” Greenberg says. “I was also very deeply immersed in metaphysical questions about life and the universe and cosmology […] and a lot of it in my thinking was boiling down to light and energy and matter.” Working with neon turned out to be the way to incorporate all of these elements into his life, and at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, Greenberg was lucky enough to find three teachers who took an interest in him: Joe Upham, Bill Gudenrath, and Gaspar Ingui. “I had this amazing combination of a crazy scientist that was Joe, a very refined glassblower [that was] Bill, and a tradesman in Gaspar… And the combination of three still didn’t do any good!” Greenberg jokes. “I had to practice for many years,” he says, but within a year he was in his first art show and started to sell commercial neon signs.
The art of creating neon lighting begins with bending and welding glass sections in a flame. Electrodes are added to each end of a completed unit, one of which has a tube attachment (tubulation) that attaches to the vacuum system. “As the air is vacuumed out, high voltage jolts and heats the remaining air in the tube to produce enough heat to purify the tube,” Greenberg explains via e-mail. This is so that when the inert gases are added, the tube stays pure. “Different gases emit different colors, and this in turn can cause phosphors on the inner glass wall to fluoresce in different colors,” he continues. It’s also possible to use different colored glass, and all of these combine to create hundreds of colors and hues of light. “At the lowest attained pressure and highest temperature, the electrodes chemically convert, which contributes to neon’s high energy efficiency,” Greenberg adds via e-mail. “Most people are surprised to learn that neon is several times more energy efficient than even LEDs.”
Greenberg was able to experiment with off-hand glassblowing techniques that are not normally applied to neon when he came to LIC in the early ‘80s and shared a shop on Vernon Boulevard with a skilled glassblower named Kevin Scanlan. Prior to this, Greenberg’s father had worked weekends in LIC when he was a child, so he can still remember taking notice of LIC neon signs like the Swingline stapler at Queens Plaza and the iconic Pepsi-Cola sign. “It’s really strange,” he says, “because I really think we know a lot about our life ahead of time, but it’s not clear as we’re running into it.” Little did Greenberg know that in 1981 he would found Krypton Neon in LIC after Scanlan moved his own business to Brooklyn. In the tiny shop he occupied for nearly 25 years, “I had to be a salesman and get the jobs, I had to do the glasswork, I had to order materials, I had to install the jobs, service them, sweep the floor, do the bookkeeping, everything,” Greenberg recalls. “And there are many times there that I fell asleep on the floor and woke up in the morning,” he laughs.
In the early ‘90s, after working on unique architectural projects, assisting artists by troubleshooting their work, and creating some very unusual neon signs (his specialty!), Greenberg’s career took a turn – towards the theatre world. His first Broadway production was 1991’s Miss Saigon, and as he says, “in an amazingly short amount of time, because it’s a very small world, really, my name just started circulating, and from the time of Miss Saigon, literally to this day I couldn’t tell you how many Broadway shows and films and TV shows I’ve [created neon lighting for].” Greenberg has also been involved in the art world – working with established artists who incorporate neon into their work, creating his own interactive neon art that has been shown in museums and galleries, and also doing conservation for museums like MoMA. “I guess I have a unique talent,” Greenberg says, “but it’s mostly because I enjoy it – being able to interface with all these different people.”
As his contacts and workload grew, Greenberg’s little shop “literally started bursting at the seams” – especially when neon glassblower and neon artist Tom Unger started officially working with him in 2002 – which is why Krypton Neon made the move to its current, larger location on 47th Avenue in 2006. Over the years, Greenberg’s genuine love of the challenging as well as the purely fun aspects of working with neon have brought him a wide variety of projects, everything from lighting for the Chanel store in LA and special effects for the International Spy Museum in D.C., to a color-changing chameleon with a fly-catching tongue for a haircutter of the same name, and two colossal, ornate Chinese dragons for Broadway’s Flower Drum Song. He was even asked to create an orgasm (!) in neon, although he hasn’t gotten to work with the neon sword swallower he’s heard of – yet…?
Greenberg also writes software and designs hardware (most recently for the Washington Nationals scoreboard), and has created several web sites, including licweb.com. In addition, he co-founded LIC gallery space and store, Art-O-Mat, with his multitalented wife, artist and landscape/interior/fashion designer, Diane Hendry, and artist and independent curator, Louise Weinberg. Greenberg and Hendry now run Art-O-Mat, which he has humorously dubbed their “unplanned child,” but he speaks for them both when he says, “We like being a part of something that helps to preserve not only arts, but local culture.”
It is also a space that shares a very positive quality with neon itself: a diverse range of people can enjoy it. “It’s got so many different personalities,” Greenberg says of the craft he’s been engaged with for so long. “There’s a part of it that’s very old and antique, there’s a part of it that’s very modern and futuristic – there’s not many things that have that quality. And of course, it’s light, and light is just such a beautiful, present thing.” In fact, as Greenberg later mentioned, working with neon is like making light. “We take this hollow piece of glass, and by the time we’re done with it, it’s actually lighting up a color. It gets back to what I was talking about [regarding] matter and energy and light – we actually convert matter to light here. It’s totally insane!”
Krypton Neon online: www.neonshop.com.