Behind the Spirit: Exploring artist Ben Livingston’s shop

Pictures of visitors in the shop, designs and comedic posters hang against the wall at Livingston's workbench. Photo courtesy of Avery Ballmann

By Avery Ballmann | Staff Writer

I initially met Ben Livingston, a neon artist, to write an article about his exhibit “Spirit Houses, Ghosts, and Memory” that is currently on display at Art Center Waco until April 23. We chatted over Zoom, but meeting him via camera wasn’t enough. His wild stories of Waco and his life intrigued me. I yearned to write and learn more about Livingston.

Over spring break, I journeyed to Austin to see Livingston’s studio. Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood is Livingston’s 200-square-foot shop where all the innovation begins.

I took my sister Nicole and my brother-in-law Heath with me since I was staying with them. When we arrived, Livingston greeted us and led us to his backyard. At this point, I was becoming skeptical since his shop looked more like a shed.

Entering the room, Livingston set out three stools for me and my guests. The shop was packed with tubes, machines, neon signs and drawings. I was afraid to break anything but once I saw Livingston wearing flip-flops — which seemed very ironic since there was broken glass all over the floor — I felt somewhat safer seeing his relaxed demeanor.

As we sat down, my interview was immediately hijacked by a back and forth sharing of stories, which didn’t phase me at all. The story I was most curious about was how and why Livingston began making neon since there are not many artists specialized in this craft. He said it all began with the women involved in his adolescence.

This is Livingston&squot;s outline for creating glass letters. When he practiced with this tarp at his internship he said "I was so bad at it, I had no precision."
This is Livingston’s outline for creating glass letters. When he practiced with this tarp at his internship he said “I was so bad at it, I had no precision.” Photo credit: Avery Ballmann

His mother, Polly Lou Livingston, was a party designer and he made sets for his grandmother’s play which used neon; this is where his passion for this art form occurred. He drew many sketches in high school, but in his hometown of Victoria, there was only one book about his newfound interest: “Let There Be Neon” by Rudi Stern.

Livingston then saved up for Northern Neon Workshop in Wisconsin. His certificate was framed under a mound of dust mounted in a random corner in his shop. This doesn’t denote the value of the certificate, this is just the way Livingston organizes. After Northern Neon he then received an apprenticeship at Texas Neon in San Antonio. He then learned how to shape glass with a glass bending tarp that he still uses today. Not only did his training inspire him, so did the spirits around him.

Capturing a memory sounds like a daunting task, but for Livingston it just comes by accident. With trial and error, Livingston uses ultraviolet light to see different colors of glass. Livingston excitedly pulled out rocks to show us how their minerals reacted with the black light, this then creates a unique color that he uses in his work. He calls these rocks his paint set.

This rock is called Franklinite. The green color is the mineral willemite and the red spots is calcite. The UV light is called the "shortwave".
This rock is called Franklinite. The green color is the mineral willemite and the red spots is calcite. The UV light is called the “shortwave”. Photo credit: Avery Ballmann

Not only did Livingston show us all of his gadgets but he also let us make and bend our own glass tube. Nicole, Heath and I’s eyes popped out of our skulls because we couldn’t justify how unsafe this was, but we were in the hands of an expert.

First off, we had to cut our tube to our desired length. We ground the glass cutter tool back and forth. Once the glass was worn down we held the tube, pushed our thumbs firmly on the back and the glass magically broke evenly. At this point, we all thought the hard part was over and Livingston would do the rest, but we were mistaken. With a wave of his hand and a kick of a pedal, Livingston fired up the flames and showed us how to bend the glass on our own.

With no safety goggles or gloves, Livingston delicately rotated his glass tube between his hands. He explained that this motion should be like a rotisserie chicken, which seemed simple enough. After his brisk demonstration, it was our turn.

In the process, Heath cut his finger on the glass, Nicole was scared and almost gave up and my hands were sweating so badly I nearly dropped my tube into the flames. In this experience I learned that art can be terrifying, literally and mentally. To claim that you can create spirit houses out of old artifacts is bold, but Livingston captures the spirit so seamlessly, it’s like he’s a lighting rod for life.

As he finished up our glasswork we took pictures and graciously thanked Livingston for the experience. We said our goodbyes and entered back into the real world.

I was saddened leaving Livingston’s wonderland, its essence is something that cannot be replicated. Livingston is looking for an apprentice before he heads to retirement so his skills and art form can be preserved for the next generation.