Photos by Niffer Calderwood
After over a quarter of a century in the industry, neon artist Shellee Miggins has lived a life all lit up in lights. She spends her days by the heat of blazing fires, bending glass at National Sign as part of their production team, and is in fact the only woman in the state of Washington who does neon production work. When the day’s work is done, Miggins’ fires burn for her creative work, most recently an awesome piece of vaginal art for the Erotic Film Festival.
STACKEDD is picking up what Miggins is throwing down. We’re loving her work, both medium and message. Neon is such a rare and playful medium, and being a woman in an industry so extremely dominated by men is a rough road to walk, but Miggins does so with compassion, courage, and a take-no-shit kind of ‘tude.
How did you get into the business?
It was back in 1988. Our family had a business that I picked up a neon sign for, and I wandered into the shop and I was intrigued by everything that was going on and so I checked into neon school. I was in Minneapolis at the time, and there was only two neon schools and one of them, the American School of Neon, was in Minneapolis, so…
Two neon schools in the whole country?
Yes. Yeah, I don’t think there’s any left. You might be able to take some classes at art schools but the schools are basically nonexistent.
Why do you think that is? Is the demand dying out?
It’s a difficult thing to learn. You can learn the basics but in order to get good and be able to do it professionally you basically have to find somebody who’s going to spend a lot of time with you and then you just have to do it on your own for a reeeallly long time before anyone will hire you. No one will really even look at your resume if you’ve only been doing it for like three years or so. After neon school I started to harass a man that was a friend of a friend of the family who had a neon shop. I would show up every day and watch them work and asked if they needed any help. I said, “I’ll sweep, do patterns, I’ll do anything you need….” I said it so many times that eventually he tired of me and hired me to sweep and do patterns and french braid his hair over his bald spot every morning. I would do whatever they asked and after they left I would turn on the fires and practice.
OK, so is it kinda like glass blowing or tattoo artistry where it’s the apprenticeships that will carry you?
How did you make your way to Seattle?
After I finished school, I did live in Hawaii for 12 years. When I got to Maui I did the same thing I did after school. I heard of a guy who had a neon shop. I again showed up and called and bothered him till he eventually hired me. Funny thing is that I would be the only one who showed up every day. I answered the phone, took orders and would wait for someone to show up and do the work. I started trying to do it myself. It took me three days to make a letter Q once. The owner said one day, “Just take it over and make sure all the bills are paid and if there is anything left, pay yourself.” I worked my ass off. This went on for a while and he would show up every once in a while and check in.
Years go by….he came in one day and explained to me that he was going to start washing all his drug money through the shop and I was going to help him. Apparently he was a drug dealer. I said I was not going to help him and made immediate plans to leave the island. He’s in jail now. My daughter at the time was starting junior high, and I kind of wanted to get her off the island and show her what the real world was all about. I had family in Seattle so we decided to come up here. I arrived in Seattle with $20 in my pocket and a 13-year-old daughter. That was in 1998.
So you’ve been here quite some time. What kind of demand for neon is there in Seattle? Is there a secret neon scene?
When I first moved here there was a lot of shops doing neon. I got a job right away and was just super busy, and then the LED explosion happened and it really started shutting down shops all over the city, so right now the demand is good because most of the small guys have fallen to the wayside, so it’s just basically National Sign and Western Neon who are doing it right now.
You guys still get steady business despite the competition from LED?
Yeah, it’s really had quite a comeback. I’m busy all the time and I know Western Neon is also busy all the time. It’s great. With the LED scene, everybody presented it as this new green lighting source, but all of the LEDs are made in China and then shipped over here, and they’re all made of plastic and they only stay lit for 10 years and then you rip all of it out and throw away and put new plastic in. So people are kind of starting to realize that LEDs are not what they were cracked up to be.
Right? That green claim is kind of a misnomer if you’re just gonna trash all of that.
Yeah, it really is.
I’m glad neon is making a resurgence. What is your day to day like? What me through a day in the life of a neon artist.
I start work at 6 so I’m usually up by 4:15 or 4:30AM. It’s an early gig because we do a lot of work before stores open and we do service work so I have to be there for the service guys to pick up units. I turn on my fires and turn on all the lights, crank on some music and just bend glass all day until 2:30PM.
And then you call it a day at 2:30PM?
A lot of times, after work and on weekends, I’ll do side projects or art projects for fun. It’s kind of fun to do my own thing every once in a while because I’m supplied patterns by our designers, so in production work you’re bending what people want you to bend. It’s fun to make your own patterns and do your own thing every once in a while to let loose.
Would we recognize any of your handiwork around town?
I did the Paramount Theater. That was really fun. Not only did I bend all the glass, but I did all of the wiring, diagrams, hooked it up to all the chasers to make it dance, so that was a big one. And then I did the Meyers Landing down by the waterfront where the ferris wheel is on Pier 57. I’ve done all of the neon on the outside of the building and the inside of the building. That’s another big project. Those are probably the two most famous, but after 17 years, they’re all over the city. We did a big one in Los Angeles when the Lion King first came out. We did a giant Lion King head that was like three stories tall that went on top of the building. There was like 3000 feet of glass in that one. That stayed up for a couple of years before the Lion King was done. That was a fun one, too.
So you guys contract outside of Seattle, then?
Yeah, we do stuff all over the place.
My editor tells me that you’re the only female neon artist in the state of Washington. Is that correct?
Well, there’s a couple of other women who do it but I might be the only production worker. There’s a couple of other women who have a little set up in their garage and do some garage neon every once in a while, but I think I might be the only one in production.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think there’s not more women in the field?
It’s weird, you know, it started out to be just a predominantly male job when neon first started and I have no idea why, but it really is all men. The sign industry is basically all men. It could be because a lot of the work is essentially a labor job–when you’re building signs it’s all metal and transformers. I’ve wondered about it myself, but there really aren’t many women. There was only one other woman in the school that I went to. Until I moved here I hadn’t heard of any other women who do it. There’s a couple of women in Seattle, a little bit here and there.
Since the industry is so male dominated, in what ways do you think being female may have affected your career? Have you ever felt overlooked as a result of your gender, or have you encountered any hostility or harassment, or even just smaller things like men being patronizing towards you while you’re on the job?
Here, not so much. I mean, I’ve been here for 15 years, so the people at the shop I work at have become my work family, but in Hawaii, definitely. You know, ‘Hey baby, can I lift that for you?’ There was a lot of sexism there, but here, not so much. I wouldn’t put up with it and I think people kind of understand that about me, but in Hawaii it was bad.
What was the difference?
It’s a little behind the times, I’d say, over there. Here, I think maybe other places it would be different, but I think in Seattle it’s a pretty progressive city and people are pretty tolerant of other people. And the company that I work for is run by third generation business owners, this is actually their anniversary, so they’ve put in their time and I think that they respect their people and their people respect them. It works out pretty good.
Seattle has been good to me. I have had a steady legitimate job and worked on amazing projects. I remember when I first got here thinking that I would never see anything I made because the city is so big. Today, I can’t drive anywhere without seeing something.