“‘This garage is the inside of my brain,’ said Mundy Hepburn, gliding his arm through the air. Standing in the bed of a Chevy pickup, his frame backlighted by one of his neon sculptures, ‘The Wave,’ he described with reverence the ‘mystical beauty’ of neon.
‘It’s so totally subliminal, so totally primordial,’ he said. ‘Just think of it as the caveman before the fire.’ Outside the cavernous parking garage on Crown Street in downtown New Haven, Yale students and pin-striped executives stop to ponder the sculptures dangling above the BMW’s and Dodge Colts and straddling the whitewashed brick walls.
Curious people stand across the street at Louie’s Lunch. Some move closer to study Mr. Hepburn’s blazing amorphous creations with names like ‘Plasma Pod,’ ‘Nuclear Chicken’ and ‘Cow Guts.’
‘It’s really an art gallery by accident,’ said John Schmid, co-owner of the Neon Garage, who stumbled on Mr. Hepburn and his art work two years ago. Along with his partners, Betsy Keedle and Joe Coppola, Mr. Schmid operates the Professional Parking Company of Hartford, which leases 20 garages statewide.
In 1987, Mr. Schmid called on Mr. Hepburn, a sign maker and a nephew of Katharine Hepburn, to make a pink Cadillac sign for a garage. When he arrived at Mr. Hepburn’s basement studio in Old Saybrook, Mr. Schmid found more than just neon advertising signs.
‘My wife and I couldn’t believe our eyes,’ he recalled. ‘Here was all this unbelievable neon art that had never been exhibited. I thought that was a real shame and convinced Mundy to put some of his work in the Crown Street garage.’
Hanging the sculptures and fine-tuning their wiring took 14 months, ‘including a lot of nights and weekends,’ said Mr. Schmid, whose company leased the garage two years ago.
170 Neon Sculptures
The exhibition includes 170 neon sculptures, and Mr. Schmid hopes to add at least 100 more.
The reactions to the Neon Garage, which also rents 120 parking spaces, has been enthusiastic, Mr. Schmid said. ‘People are astounded,’ he said. ‘It appeals to them because it’s very unexpected. There’s just no reason for it. The only art I know about is the art of parking cars. All I wanted to do was put some neon in there for fun because I thought it was so neat. And now everyone’s encouraging us to have gallery openings and who knows what.’
Another fan is Gary M. Young, executive director of the State Commission on the Arts. Mr. Young, who lives in Hamden, was going to work in Hartford one morning when he passed the Neon Garage. ‘I drove by and couldn’t believe all this wonderful art,’ he said. ‘What a strange but nifty place to exhibit, this great space with all the carbon monoxide and horns.’
Mr. Young asked Mr. Hepburn for an exhibition in the commission’s Hartford office at 227 Lawrence Street. The show, which opened Sept. 14, includes 10 neon sculptures and will run weekdays until the end of this month. ‘Playful Exploration’
‘One of the nice things about Mundy’s work is that he responds to the material through his personal perceptions and awareness,’ Mr. Young said. ‘His work is a very playful exploration of glass and color. He’s been able to push neon beyond the typical industrial colors, making it very different and fresh.’ Mr. Young also bought one of the sculptures for his condo.
A self-taught glassblower and sign maker, Mr. Hepburn, who is 34 years old, was raised in the Borough of Fenwick in Old Saybrook, an area he described as ‘beautiful, but quite isolated.’
‘There were few children around,’ he said. ‘So it pretty much predisposed me to interact with things more than people.’
Handed a tool set when he was 4, Mundy began to build toys for two younger brothers and once built a circular saw out of a small motor; some nails, which he made into bearings, and a tin-can lid that he carved into a saw.
His father, Dick, a playwright, and his mother, Estelle, a former children’s librarian and stage designer, approached were cautious yet encouraging.
‘My parents always told us that if we followed the rules, we’d get nowhere fast,’ Mr. Hepburn said. ‘It was essential that we always try to pursue things in a unique way. That really helped us to develop creatively.’
When he was 8, his mother took him to the Guilford Crafts Fair on the green, where she set up a booth and sold silk-screened dresses and hand-decorated children’s clothes. He walked over to an artist melting glass. He said: ‘I thought: ‘Wow, look at that! The glass gets gooey when you melt it.’ It was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen. And I’ve always been a sucker for weird things.’
Mr. Hepburn added that he tried to steal one of the artist’s glass animals. When the artist’s wife caught him, the boy ran away but was drawn back. Expecting to be scolded, he was instead asked to go to the back of the booth.
‘She handed me a tiny box, and I ran back to my mother and opened it,’ Mr. Hepburn recalled. ‘Inside was a glass swan. My little brains nearly melted. I went home the same day and started to cook lightbulbs on our kitchen stove.’
Means of Self-Help
Mr. Hepburn taught himself how to make glass animals and earrings to sell at craft shows. He dropped out of high school and encountered personal problems, including a drug problem. He began to broaden his glass experiments, as a form of occupational therapy.
‘I began working with glass to prevent myself from committing suicide. I was that desperate,’ he said. ‘About that time, my father said to me: ‘Mundy, you come from a family of race horses. Don’t try to plod, or else you’ll self-destruct. Whatever you do, do it all the way.’ The problem was I was so high on drugs that I could barely even plod.’
On a visit to Tucson, Ariz., he began leafing through the telephone book until he came across an ad for neon signs. He telephoned the owner of the shop and went there the same afternoon.
35 Tries on an ‘O’
‘For the next four hours I sat in this little room that felt like an inferno while this little fat guy with glasses dripping with sweat filled my head with how to do neon,’ he said.
At 22, he opened a neon-sign shop in Old Saybrook without ever having bent a piece of glass. His first job was to repair a store’s ‘open’ sign. It took him 35 tries before he perfected the ‘O.’ Next he repaired six Miller Beer signs for Star Distributors Inc. in West Haven for $160.
On the side, he continued to swell fragile tubes and twist them. Mr. Hepburn would then weld a thin conducting wire into one end and pump inert gas into the other before sealing the sculpture.
Mr. Hepburn sold one of his first neon sculptures to Rudi Stern, the neon-light art dealer in Manhattan. Mr. Stern, who wrote ‘The New Let There Be Neon’ (Abrams, $35), called Mr. Hepburn’s neon art ‘some of the finest in the world.’
Neon signs are created by passing an electric current through a glass tube containing the inert neon, producing a red glow. Mr. Hepburn has expanded on the principle by using argon, xenon or helium to vary colors and effects. Other variables include the glass; pressure; mercury, if any, and fluorescent powders, or phosphors.
The sculptures cost $200 to $1,000 for a bouquet of neon flowers to $4,000 for larger free-form subjects.
‘Abused Social Medium’
‘People keep calling me an artist, when all along I just thought of myself as a technologist quietly exploring the potential of neon,’ Mr. Hepburn said. More than anything else, though, he said he would like to change the public’s opinion of neon, which he called ‘an abused social medium.’
‘It’s like the use of marble for door jams in bathrooms,’ he said. ‘Marble is also used in the ‘Pieta.’ Same thing as neon, yet it hasn’t gotten out of the bathroom yet.’
Mr. Hepburn envisions a school for neon artists, but for now he appears content holding court in the sea of sculptures at the Neon Garage, where he answers the phone and helps tenants find their cars. ‘Someday,’ he said, ‘there’s going to be neon garages all over the world.'”
-Excerpt and images courtesy of the New York Times, Times Machine, “In a New Haven Garage, Neon Art Glows,” by Andi Rierden, October 8, 1989
I PARKED MY CAR… WITH FAMOUS ART!!! by Stephan Kaufer, September 14, 1990
“‘Art is the sap of life,’ says Nietzsche.
‘Right on,’ says Douglas, the parking attendant at the Neon Garage.
Since the summer of 1988, the parking garage opposite Louis’ Lunch on Crown Street has taken on the secondary role of a gallery, exhibiting the neon sculptures of Mundy Hepburn.
This drive-in / art combination is the brainchild of parking magnates Joe Coppola and John Schmidt who first commissioned Hepburn to create a neon pink Cadillac for the Park ‘n Bop lot on College and George streets. Fascinated by his work, they proposed the Neon Garage: parking at a real Art Gallery. Mundy, the Old Saybrook-based sculptor and nephew of Katharine Hepburn, accepted at once. ‘The dark and classically constructed building is a perfect place to show my work — so let there be neon!’
And there was neon.
There are about eighty individual shapes arranged in a dozen groupings. Since the garage has no other lighting, the colorful shapes reflect sharply off the shining bodies of those cars fortunate enough to spend a day in the glow — brightened, beautified and parked for $4.50. The range of colors and configurations is dazzling, starting from The Garden, an assembly of triangular shapes at the entrance, to a rendering entitled 6 Cowguts or the Nuns Caught in the Act (Douglas’ favorite). Of course all of these flamboyant affectations are for sale, at prices ranging from $150 to $5,000. Douglas has the numbers to call.
Though a beautiful concept, the gallery / garage is also a confusing combination. Pedestrians on Crown street slow down to steal a glance, but very few step inside to absorb the neon sap, and many drivers ask whether they can actually park their cars here. Still, business is good. Douglas, who has worked at a slew of garages, likes it here because it’s warm in the winter and he gets to drive a lot.
But driving at the Neon Garage demands experience: The building rests on columns which leave only narrow driveways to juggle the cars into 140 tightly crammed spaces. As a result there has been an unusually high number of accidents.
Nonetheless customers of the parking kind return despite the rate of scrapes on their cars. ‘They like the neon, because it’s unique,’ says Douglas. One customer says it ‘feels great when you come in,’ but is afraid the ‘frills will raise the rates.’ However, at an average monthly rate of $81, even some students keep their cars here.
Neon sculpture customers, on the other hand, are scarce. As long as Douglas can remember, no sculpture has left the gallery. But that doesn’t make the combination a failure. ‘We love originality,’ says Coppola. ‘One day we had all the attendants in our Hartford garages dress up in banana suits. It just adds so much to people’s days.’
Coppola is right. The Neon Garage is an experience even without having Douglas wear a banana suit. It adds the sap. If Nietzsche were alive today, he would park his car here.”
-Excerpt and images courtesy of the Yale Daily News Historical Archive, The Yale Daily News, “I PARKED MY CAR… WITH FAMOUS ART!!!” by Stephan Kaufer, September 14, 1990
PARK ‘N’ GLO, by Meme Stowers, April 19, 1991
“New Haven’s Neon Garage may be the only parking garage that doubles as an art gallery. The rafters and walls of the garage display examples of an unusual art form — luminous sculptures made from glass, chemicals, and electricity. Usually associated with glaring commercial signs, neon is gaining acceptance as a medium for high art. Since 1988, the garage — located on Crown Street between College and High streets — has exhibited the work of Mundy Hepburn, an artist fascinated with manipulating molten glass.
Hepburn’s creative impulse used to eclipse his concern for profit. But financial necessity and the prospect of reaching a large audience made him receptive to the idea of bringing his work into the mainstream. The owners of the Neon Garage saw marketing potential in neon that Hepburn did not realize. ‘He used to just give things away,’ said Joe Coppola, one of the owners. ‘If you said you liked something, he’d say ‘take it.’’ Now some of Hepburn’s pieces sell for several thousand dollars. ‘The garage was my first foray into reality,’ said the artist, who is currently exploring other venues for his work.
Hepburn’s sculptures defy popular notions about neon. Some pieces are stark, clean, and geometric; others are malleable tangles of soft color with painterly strokes and patterns. Layers of multicolored triangles hover above the entrance to the Neon Garage. Behind them, iridescent glass ribbons drip with colored paint. At the back of the garage hangs a bouquet of flowers—one small example of Hepburn’s elegant neon foliage. Magic Garden, his large sculpture permanently installed at the Panasonic headquarters in Osaka, Japan, is an exotic collection of glowing otherworldly flowers and ‘dweaselators.’ Sparks from electrified gas crackle inside these irregular, bulb-like glass vessels. ‘Hepburn is an alchemist — a magician with light,’ writes Rudi Stern, whose latest book, ‘Contemporary Neon,’ features Hepburn’s work. ‘By successfully breaking the rules of neon manufacture he has created a very individual form of expression.’
Hepburn himself may be more intriguing than his work. At age eight he was so entranced by a man working glass at a fair that he began melting light bulbs over the gas stove at home. Hepburn is a self-taught scientist who is happier talking about chemistry and physics than making aesthetic declarations. When asked what he wants his pieces to communicate, he quipped, ‘Do you mean are they fraught with deep inner meaning?’
Hepburn has never lost his childlike curiosity and desire to invent. He builds all his major pieces of equipment — torches, vacuums, furnaces, gas gauges — from salvaged materials. His latest technical challenge is to make glass from raw ingredients: sand, soda, and lime. This glass differs from the flawless prefabricated tubes he used for the Neon Garage sculptures. Its thick, bubbly texture provides Hepburn with a more sculptural medium. When he illuminates this glass with neon, the light emphasizes the irregularity of its surface.
Eventually, Hepburn wants to make gigantic neon forms with his homemade glass, still impossible without better technology. To achieve this goal, he must first develop the tools and techniques necessary for large-scale work with his temperamental medium. ‘I’m awakening to the possibilities of the technology,’ he said.
The concept of a garage-exhibition space has not significantly improved the parking business, but it gives Hepburn good exposure. ‘People stop in off the street all the time,’ Coppola said. Some even have purchased or commissioned sculptures for their homes. The idea of neon as art seems to be catching on. ‘The momentum of my life is picking up,’ said Hepburn. ‘Now I am much less the mad scientist in the basement.'”
-Excerpt and image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library, Yale University, The New Journal v. 23, no. 5, “Park ‘n’ Glo,” by Meme Stowers, April 19, 1991