Kacie Lees: Neon’s Rising Star [Interview]
“Neon is a recording device that glows,” says teaching artist Kacie Lees, who bends colorful tubes of gas into fluorescent lightning bolts and punchy POW! shapes. “[Neon] captures your movement then emits light like a pocket star or some kind of honing device, drawing you into its center.”
Working across multiple disciplines, including neon, video, and print, Kacie recreates iconic symbols that pulse with color, light, and energy. Her neon work balances the simple language of hearts and stars with aimless, unpredictable pieces that capture movement and emotion like lightning in a thin, pliable tube. “I’ve been working with a kind of jagged shape I call a ‘fissure,’” she says, describing the slim, horizontal bolt as a “rip in spacetime […], a crack in our world where the unknown waits.”
The spiral, an age-old symbol with mystical overtones, crops up in the ember glow of neon signs “Ruby Vortex” (2018) and again in Kacie’s print work. “[The spiral] implies transformation and the constant flux of our changing world,” says Kacie, who sees the symbol’s signature whorl in everything from the Fibonacci Sequence to the Milky Way. “With multiples, we can’t help but compare, find familiarities or inconsistencies,” she continues, suggesting that patterns, whether micro or macro in scope, create a cosmic rhythm irresistible to human hands like hers. Kacie gravitates toward a fated universe full of predetermined patterns and fixed symbols, but her handcrafted work reveals even our most trivial choices as rebellious acts of free will. The tiny but inevitable variations in each piece remind Kacie “that every bend in every single neon unit was made by a human playing with fire.”
If you want to learn more about neon, Kacie has two workshops coming up. The first, MIRRORWORLD: Imperfect Practices in Neon and Reflection, runs Oct. 27 – 29 at Urban Glass in Brooklyn, NY. The second, ENTER THE VOID: A Spiral Bending Neon Bending Workshop, takes place Nov. 4 at the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA.
Kacie’s work is on view through Oct. 29 at The Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA, in She Bends: Redefining Neon Legacy.
In Today's Q+Art Interview…
Kacie Lees discusses the similarities between printmaking and bending neon, the benefits of keeping a digital catalog, and what attendees can expect from her famous (and fun!) neon workshops.
What’s your favorite creative ritual?
What’s the last good book you read?
Kacie Lees: Mirror, Mirror by Mark Pendergrast (2003). It’s a history of mirrors, which is also a history of glass and a history of telescopes. Every page is stacked with mind-melting details.
The Variety of Religious Experience by William James (1902). Devastatingly gorgeous descriptions of exhaled, ineffable human experience.
The Holography Handbook by Bob Schlesinger, Fred Unterseher, and Jeannene Hansen (1982) This book was a foundational reference text for me while writing and conceptualizing my book Neon Primer: A Handbook on Light Construction (Plazma Press, 2021). There’s a “Philosophy” chapter in the appendix that will blow your lid.
How does printmaking tie into your neon work?
KL: While silkscreening my 200-page neon handbook in 2021, I kept finding material relations between printmaking and neon-making. The way the ink sits elevated like icing on the page, the fingerprints, or the hapless marks and smudges—these qualities tie a humanity to the printing process, and those are the things I love about neon bending.
In the book, I found ways to use light as a language itself. By strategically applying UV-reactive inks in sections that describe fluorescence or using clear pages with overlapping rings to demonstrate interference patterns, the reader has more modalities to absorb information and passive ways of getting into the content.
My poster work is largely made via risograph, a Japanese duplicating machine that prints with translucent yet vibrant inks. A lot of these posters start as one-sheets, or graphic ways to simplify concepts like wavelengths of light, or how color works in neon. In a series I made with the SVA Risolab in the fall of ‘22, I printed a range of pop-culture images dealing with nuclear power and high-energy waves to make an allusion to scientific discoveries via UV-activated color (Homer Simpson juggling Uranium-235, the first ever X-ray taken by Wilhelm Röntgen of his wife Anna’s hand, the wormhole scene with Jodie Foster from the classic 1997 American film Contact).
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had, inside or outside the art world?
KL: Can I counter with the best job ever? Blockbuster at 16 years old. Five free movies a week.
What makes you laugh the hardest?
KL: Dad jokes. When does a joke become a dad joke? When it’s fully groan…
You split your time between L.A., New York, and Chicago. How do these different creative hubs affect your work?
KL: I dig driving across the country’s motley landscape, and I’ve been building rhizomatic connections with other artists and institutions along the road since 2016. Each chosen city center has its own schools of thought and material legacies to work with.
L.A. has the movies, the Light and Space Movement, that endless sun. New York is nonstop, the home of Fluxus, and I love working with the local suppliers hidden away up on the high floors in the Fashion District or Bernie’s—the last glass and mirror shop in Brooklyn that only takes cash. There is a certain freedom in anonymity that can only exist in New York. Chicago is bursting with resources, artist-run spaces, bikes, house music, Bauhaus.
All three have great DIY art space communities. I’m slowly adding Iceland with its bursting optical pleasures and geothermal hot pots to my seasonal triangulation. It's all a subconscious jumble but it is rad to see how these concepts mix together and ooze out of the works created in those spaces.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
KL: Storing and cataloging a digital art archive! Keeping better records has made visible the totality and trajectory of my practice and has led me in some strange directions.
What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
KL: Total Eclipse North American Tour Tee! I am super excited to be in the path of totality for the next total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. It rips across America and parts of Mexico and Canada and so I had to make it into a ’90s style band tour t-shirt. It’s acid wash.
What can attendees expect from your neon workshops?
KL: Expect to get totally sucked in. Neon is almost too fun. I usually have a packet of tangentially connected reference articles and images related to the course topic—I shoot for a one-sheet, but it's always like six pages long. Then you go home with a neon sign you made while drawing with glass in fire!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s).
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