Richard Wheater's neon innovation

PUBLISHED: 13:36 07 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:46 20 February 2013

Jo Haywood meets a West Yorkshire neon artist switching to chandelier design PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY BULMER.

Neon has had a colourful past.Without it, the red light district would just be the murky dark district.

'It has had something of a seedy reputation,' conceded Wakefield artist Richard Wheater. 'When people think of neon they still think of garish pink, flashing signs and the red light district, but it can actually be incredibly beautiful.

'Neon light is different. Other light can't match it for depth. I like being first and I like breaking new ground, so making people look at neon in a whole new way is very exciting to me.'

Richard is not a man to start with something small. He thinks big. Big as in a giant neon chandelier.

'This was an entirely new way of approaching a chandelier,' said Richard, whose stunning blue creation was recently installed in the bell tower of a converted chapel owned by artist Janet Flynn on the outskirts of Wakefield.

'I wanted to fuse beauty and function, teaming old methods with new methods to create something no one had ever seen before.'

He first discovered neon art when he visited New York on an exchange from Edinburgh College of Art, but was frustrated to find there wasn't a dedicated neon department at any college or university when he returned home.

'Sunderland has the biggest glass department in Europe and even they don't have a neon section,' he said. 'I think people are put off by the safety aspect. You've got flames and gas and glass and extremely high voltage (up to 20,000 volts). The insurance premiums can be a bit steep.'

Richard returned to the US to do an advanced neon course in Brooklyn. His tutors advised him to find a small neon company to work with back in Britain on his return. They suggested a little place in Leeds.

'It was ironic that I had to go all the way to New York to be told to join a company back in West Yorkshire where I'm from,' he said.

He joined Neon Craft in Garforth (now Neon Unity in Wakefield) and put the hours in to learn his craft. His mentor was Pete Bickerstaff - a man who knows everything you ever wanted to know about neon but were afraid to ask.

'It's an extremely time-consuming business, but I like that,' said Pete. 'Working with neon is an unusual combination of art and science, but that suits me as I studied art at college and then did an engineering degree.

'The glass often feels like it has a life of its own. It's very difficult to control. But I like working with difficult materials - it makes life interesting. Controlling the seemingly uncontrollable is one of the major draws.'

Richard admits he found working with neon tough at first. But after a two-year informal apprenticeship with Pete he felt equipped to start running workshops for people who wanted to try their hand at this tricky craft.

'Members of the public can come along and create something in a day,' he said. 'People still tend to think of lettering when they think of neon, but you can be much more creative and inventive than that. People make all sorts of weird and wonderful things in the workshops, from chillies to high heeled shoes.'

Back on planet practical, most people now choose LED lights over neon. But Richard thinks neon might be on the brink of a resurgence.

'LEDs are the latest technology, but that doesn't necessarily make them the best,' he argued. 'Neon is a more efficient, user-friendly, greener option. It's 100 per cent recyclable - it's just gas and glass - and it burns bright but it doesn't burn hot. These lights last for years and use very little electricity.With a bit of re-education, I'm sure people can be switched on to neon again.'

'This project has always been about electricity, so why not make the shape reflect that? For me, it's about making a potentially ugly shape into something beautiful.'

Richard was first approached about creating a neon chandelier by a Leeds architect who wanted a sevenmetre high light for a new city centre building. That project was shelved, but the creative process continued.

The chandelier was scaled down slightly - although it is still impressively proportioned - and redesigned to fit the bell tower of a converted Wakefield church, now home of artist Janet Flynn.

'I was fascinated by the idea of recreating the shape of a 20th century electricity generator using a 19th century craft,' said Richard. 'This project has always been about electricity, so why not make the shape reflect that? For me, it's about making a potentially ugly shape into something beautiful.'

And that is precisely what he did. His practical artwork, which he has called Adapt, shows neon in a whole new light and has led to national and international recognition.

His work was featured in the recent British Glass Biennale and he was one of only two emerging British artists to be invited to the European Glass Context 2008 in Denmark.

'It's a real honour just to be invited,' he said. 'And if it allows me to keep spreading the word about the beauty of neon, all the better.'

For information go to Neon expert Pete Bickerstaff can be contacted via

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