Spirits of the past come alive in neon art exhibit

Neon artist Ben Livingston's neon art on display at his last exhibit in San Angelo, featuring spirit houses. The neon sculptures are interpreted as spirits housed in old wood and other materials.

BEEVILLE – An underlying spirit flows through all communities just like an electrical current.

And just like the dust in each community, that dust and spirit holds information, going back centuries.

Phosphors, to Austin artist Ben Livingston, can be made into dust from rock and then illuminated to show evidence of the spirit that lives there.

Like ghosts in the dark, the spirit comes alive in the neon art he creates.

“Yes, within this dust are ghosts, and the only way you can see them is at night,” Livingston said.

He has been creating neon art for years and is known internationally for his neon sculpting.

He won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in the 1990s and has received high praise through the years, including the Paul Waterbury International Lighting Design Award.

Even Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones owns a Livingston neon piece.

With the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, he was able to learn a lot with Glenn Waychunas at Stanford University.

Along with Waychunas he delved into how lightning bugs work.

Of course, the vivid colors of neon put oil paintings to shame.

Just completing a recent exhibition in San Angelo, where he created exclusive neon art for that area, Livingston now is opening an exhibit titled “Poesta Rising: Beeville’s Ghosts, Memories and Spirit Houses,” where again he has created three new neon art pieces exclusively for Bee County.

The San Angelo pieces will be displayed here, as well.

For Bee County, Livingston was influenced greatly by the book “Biography of a Particular Place, Volume 1” by Margaret Lyne Moser, a Bee County resident.

Livingston said he had Margaret Moser’s children choose the pages he used.

Copies of the pages in the book are used in part of the exhibit.

The pages form a tube with neon inside, illuminating the pages, not unlike a diorama lamp.

“I’ve arranged with the library here, which is part of the Barnhart Foundation, to have the books available for sale during the show,” Livingston said.

Museum goers will find old photographs – some not so old and others more than 100 years old – used in the display. Old devices, as well, are on display, including a huge hair curler that looks like a precursor to the electric chair.

“But this is not a history exhibit,” Livingston said.

The photographs are intended to awaken memories ingrained in the viewer – a subliminal presence that has always lived there.

Livingston was highly influenced by spirit houses in Southeast Asia after he traveled through Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. He also visited Nepal.

Austin history writer Gene Fowler wrote about Livingston’s travels and called them a “spirit house safari” in the Glasstire online magazine.

Spirit houses are miniature houses or temples that offer residence to spirits for protection and other reasons.

Also, Livingston said he has adopted Jiddu Krishnamurti’s philosophy, dealing with the mind and creativity.

“You’ll never find your creativity if you’re interrupted by conflict,” Livingston said.

He ceased creating commission neon work because he found that conflicting with his art. So he is following Krishnamurti’s advice.

“So these museum shows are terrific because I get to do what I feel,” he said.

One of the pieces he created for Beeville was a wind horse shaped like a heart – an appropriate western symbol – that is reflected across the room in a mirror.

In Asia, a wind horse is an allegory for the human soul.

“What makes this a wind horse is, if you stand here and look across the room, it broadcasts there, so it’s moving, it’s happening,” he said.

Another piece was neon wrapped in old wood that had seen 10 generations of people dating back to the Civil War. Again, the creation of neon and historic wood has to do with spirit houses.

“I was reacting to the materials, and the spirits in the materials I was sort of interpreting. These are like personalities,” he said.

Livingston said his intention with his neon art is to house them in material that sometimes dates more than 100 years old, such as wood from old barns or from slave quarters.

In doing so, he has created modern-day spirit houses – houses that evoke memories, feelings and emotion: the true goal of art.

“...This show plays with one’s memory. And since the show is a work in progress, I am progressing philosophically toward its message being that memory and thought are the greatest abstraction of the human mind,” Livingston said.

“But for one to simply – not easy – stand and behold what is actually there without judgment would be the absolute sweet spot of our existence as human beings,” he said.

“That said, the last show I will ever exhibit will have absolutely nothing there,” he added.

The exhibit will open May 12 and will continue through July 21 at the Beeville Art Museum, 401 E. Fannin St.

The museum opens 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

Tim Delaney is the editor at the Advance-Guard Press and can be reached at 361-526-2397, or at refugio@mySouTex.com.