Ben Livingston packs lots of talent into electrifying arts
Friday, May 13, 2011 | | 7
Photo by John Hagen
Known for his innovative neon work and the discovery of a new type of neon light, artist Ben Livingston twists and welds neon glass tubing in a crossfire at 1,000 degrees in one of his Austin-area studios.
It’s hard to imagine a better symbol for innocent creativity than the humble Crayola 64-pack of crayons.
Those colors beckon us – the carnation pink, the cerulean blue and the purple mountain majesty. They swirl through our thoughts, settling into childhood drawings of asparagus trees, wild-strawberry stick houses and dark-green grass where strange cobalt horses graze.
If only life held all the creative possibility and freedom of kindergarten.
For Ben Livingston, it does. He takes on the world with an electric crayon in hand.
If Livingston were a meandering road of creativity, that road would have a lot of side paths leading from it. There would be the neon path, the painting path, the singing and songwriting path and heaven only knows what else.
To Livingston, it’s all the same.
“The real artistic medium is the truth and trying to tell it the best way I can,” he said. “Whatever is in front of me is what I see. If it’s interesting, that’s where I am. I’m like a big-mouth bass that runs after bright, shiny objects.”
It’s not just that Livingston dabbles in a number of different arts; it’s that he pursues each one with passion and excels in it. His unique invention of a new kind of neon – the infinite phosphorescent color palate – won him a fellowship with the National Endowment for the Arts. His childlike animated neon sculpture, a cautionary tale about the end of the world, distracted traffic on Fifth Street for 22 years until 2008, and it beat out the Statue of Liberty to win an IES Paul Waterbury International Illuminating Design Award of Excellence.
Examples of Livingston’s artwork are all over Austin. They hang at the Austin Convention Center, the University of Texas Performing Arts Center and Motorola. Art collectors ranging from Lance Armstrong to Mick Jagger seek out his pieces. His neon Amy’s Ice Cream sign at Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard still stands as an Austin icon.
“What makes Ben different is that he thinks out of the box and the universe,” said Pebbles Wadsworth, former director of the University of Texas Performing Arts Center. “He sees colors differently. He looks at problems, beauty, pain and more from a different slant, and a powerful creative force comes out of him that often I feel he has no control over. Ben has no boundaries.”
What is it that makes Livingston so much more artistic and inventive than the rest of us? Has he got some kind genetic gift? Maybe.
Livingston is dyslexic. What some might consider a disability, he considers a gift.
“We can’t follow instructions, so we have to be very creative,” he said. “We have to see the bigger picture instead of the details.”
Bright light, big city
Livingston took the hard road to artistic success. He was born and grew up in the conservative atmosphere of Victoria, Texas. A more comfortable environment awaited him during summer visits to San Antonio, where his grandmother, Polly Simon, put him to work building props for theater sets.
He endured hard labor on offshore oilrigs after high school. He was about to head west and open a used bicycle shop when his mother, well-known party planner Polly Lou Livingston, offered him a job building an elaborate set for a Washington Project for the Arts gala.
“My mom saved my life,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d probably still be in El Paso today with a broken car.”
The WPA hired Livingston to help build a theater.
In Washington D.C., he saw his first neon piece, a Dutch masters billboard by artist Steven Antonakos. He was hooked.
It was also in D.C. that Livingston began hanging around with musicians Terry Allen, the Maines brothers, Richard Bowden and Joe Ely’s band. That exposure and those connections would prove important in later years.
“I was born at age 23 in Washington D.C.,” he said. “Art was real. People told the truth. It was stimulating.”
In 1984, Livingston headed to Wisconsin for a six-week neon workshop. When he finished, he bolted to San Antonio for an apprenticeship with master neon artist Fritz Ozuna of Texas Neon Sign Company.
The big neon Ka-Pow
During a short venture to New Zealand to teach and study neon, something magic happened that altered the roadmap of Livingston’s life. In 1984, he stumbled across a piece of German neon glass tubing that was coated on the inside with phosphorous.
“When you shined a certain kind of light on it, it would do things I had never seen before,” he said.
What the blue tube did was glow a warm red. That discovery grabbed Livingston’s attention and held on tight. Could that red light add a whole new set of warm colors to the cold-colored neon spectrum?
Immersed in neon dreams and again homesick for Texas, Livingston came back to Austin and opened the Beneon Company in 1985. His first neon clients included former print advertisers – the Continental Club, Amy’s Ice Cream, Jeffrey’s, Mezzaluna and the Granite Café.
His fascination with phosphorous was alive and growing.
“It made tubes become almost like opals,” he said.
He produced his first phosphorescent neon sculpture, “Where The Roses Get Red,” for his show at the Nave Museum in Victoria. Wadsword later aquired it for the UT PAC. It hangs there still. The City of Austin commissioned him to create a neon sculpture for its convention center.
“His pieces bring me into the very art source,” Wadsworth said. “They never sleep. They introduce me to new colors and the mixture of colors. They are alive.”
It was Wadsworth that encouraged Livingston to go after an NEA fellowship in 1993. The $20,000 afforded him the opportunity to refine his neon and to meet with some of the country’s best physics professors. He traveled to Oregon and California to search for new rocks.
“Suddenly, I was like this laureate for a day,” he said.
The Wall Street Journal hunted him down for interviews. Manufacturers began calling him, asking him to try their phosphorous.
Livingston’s neon career took off, and he has never looked back. As the artist matures and changes, so does his neon work.
“My neon has become more meditative,” he said. “Now I am more aware of how much we are connected to nature. I’m telling a story from a deep level. I try to incorporate energy into it. It’s a crude portrait of a living spirit.”
Stretching the canvas
Livingston grew up drawing and painting. He was good at it, and as a dyslexic kid in the public school system in the 1960s, it gave him the rare chance to feel good about himself.
“I tell stories out of my head that way,” he said. “When I paint, time stops.”
He picked up the brush more seriously in 1990, under the guidance of his friend and neighbor, well-known illustrator Tom Curry. It was a time of great creativity for Livingston. It gave him something neon couldn’t provide – an outlet for his wry humor.
“There is zero irony in neon,” he said. “My paintings are very ironic. Music is somewhere in between. With paintings, I can think through things. I can work out problems.”
Livingston temporarily moved to New York City in 1991, when he was commissioned by Jerry Arpino, creative director /partner of The Joffery Ballet, to design a set for a huge traveling production called Billboards. In New York, the artist captivated progressive galleries.
“People really get it there – they get my work as a literary allegory,” he said.
Livingston returned to Austin, trading the thrill of a progressive big city for a healthy environment. The move hasn’t hurt his fine art career. His talent has garnered him numerous exhibits in France, including ones at the Musee de la Sorbonne in Paris, the Jaques Prevert Center Cultural in Cherbourg and the Musee de Bordeaux in Bordeaux.
Like he did with all his other art forms, Livingston ventured into music early, plucking around on the guitar in early high school. He made his first public appearance in 1994, opening for Joe Ely and Terry Allen at the Blue Star Art Complex’s Jump Start Theatre in San Antonio. Even with the time he spends today creating sculptures and paintings, the maturing musician manages to make nearly 50 tour dates a year across the state, including Austin shows during SXSW, Threadgills, Momo’s and at New World Deli and the Continental Club on a regular basis.
His first album, “Trust Your Equipment,” was recorded in Austin last year. Livingston is now working on a new release with producer Denny Bruce.
In all his endeavors, Wadsworth said she has a hard time separating Ben the human from Ben the artist.
“He is what he is,” she said. “And he makes our world a better place indeed.”
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