San Antonio glass artist Adam Smolensky puts an irreverent spin on neon signs at FL!GHT Gallery

Roughly eight years after establishing himself as a local artist know for borosilicate glass pieces — from pipes and pendants to stemware and sculptures — Smolensky challenged himself to learn a new skill set: neon.

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge A sampling of the neon works featured in artist Adam Smolensky's December exhibition at FL!GHT Gallery - Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
A sampling of the neon works featured in artist Adam Smolensky's December exhibition at FL!GHT Gallery
Houston native Adam Smolensky relocated from Austin to San Antonio in 2012 with a determination to learn glassblowing from members of the local glass community. He’d been fascinated by glass since his high school days — when he daydreamed about making pipes — but opportunities to learn the craft had eluded him.

Smolensky experienced some early frustrations diving into the complicated, expensive and often dangerous craft (“I was so bad at it that I almost quit”) but eventually learned the ropes with guidance from area glass artists. As an early member of local artist Sean Johnston’s project Esferas Perdidas (Lost Spheres) — which involves participants hiding handmade marbles across San Antonio for social media followers to find and collect — Smolensky gained a talent for making intricate marbles.

“Being part of that group and in that community really helped me push myself,” Smolensky told the Current during a recent conversation.

Roughly eight years after establishing himself as a local artist know for borosilicate glass pieces — from pipes and pendants to stemware and sculptures — Smolensky challenged himself to learn a new skill set: neon.

With only a few years of neon experience under his belt, Smolensky says he’s still learning but that his work has become “clean enough and good enough” to share with the public. This glowing new chapter in his career comes to light this month via “Growing Old Is Mandatory, but Growing Up Is Optional” — a FL!GHT Gallery exhibition comprising a dozen or so neon signs that combine sexual innuendos and playful hallmarks of the Internet Age.

click to enlarge Artist Adam Smolensky with a pair of his glass marbles. - Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
Artist Adam Smolensky with a pair of his glass marbles.
 Getting lit

Smolensky’s first forays into neon territory entailed making his own plasma lamps — electrified, gas-filled vessels that wouldn’t look out of place in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. (Readers of a certain age may have pawed novelty versions at Spencer’s Gifts in the 1980s.)

“I started getting into making plasma lamps because I found out electrodes [are made from] the same glass I work with,” Smolensky explained. “Plasma uses a lot of the same gear that neon does. I started meeting [neon artists] and learning about what went into making neon. I also learned that it’s a good career choice. … Once I saw that world, I realized that if I was able to gain that as a skill set — and take it seriously — that it would allow me to breathe a little and not have to work as hard with glass.”

Smolensky’s quest for skills led him — along with fellow artist and FL!GHT Gallery owner Justin Parr — to a plasma-centric gathering at neon artist Nate Schaeffer’s shop in Raleigh, North Carolina. While there, the pair gleaned all they could from Schaeffer and visiting artists including California-based neon master Bruce Suba.

Hooked and hungry for more, Smolensky later reached out to Schaeffer, who had relocated to New Orleans, with a proposal:

“I called him and said, ‘I really want to pursue neon. Are you willing to do an intensive with me?’

Schaeffer agreed and Smolensky and Parr spent a week learning from the pro in his New Orleans shop.

“We slept in his shop and for a week we just put our heads down and learned,” Smolensky said. We went from conception to making a pattern, mounting it and lighting it up. I bought some gear off of him because he had some extra gear.”

click to enlarge Smolensky's neon signs for the San Antonio establishments Southtown 101 (left) and Double Standard (right). - Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
Smolensky's neon signs for the San Antonio establishments Southtown 101 (left) and Double Standard (right).
Setting up shop

Back in his home shop, Smolensky started practicing the hard-to-imagine feat of bending glass for neon signs.

“As far as bending the glass goes, a lot of that was just me buying cases of glass and locking myself in my shop, putting my head down and figuring it out,” Smolensky said. “At the beginning, the first six or seven months, I’d bring the wheelbarrow into my shop and it would be overflowing with [broken] glass that I would take out to the dumpster. That part, it was pure determination. … I’m still not the fastest or best bender.”

A well-timed call from Affordable Neon owner Ray Lynch — the so-called “King of Neon in San Antonio” — provided an opportunity for Smolensky to improve those glass-bending skills.

“Ray was looking for bending help because he was getting busy,” Smolensky said. “I told him, ‘I can’t really bend well — I’m really just getting into to it — but I’m serious about it.’ I went and talked to him and we hit it off. Now I do a lot of installs and service calls with him. He really showed me a lot of important behind-the-scenes stuff — fabrication, installation, troubleshooting, all that."

Aptly, Smolensky’s first fully realized neon creation was a creative collaboration with Parr. Modeled after a rose window, the animated neon piece was showcased at Luminaria in 2021. Since then Smolensky’s created signs for popular San Antonio bars and restaurants including Bakery Lorraine, Double Standard, Hands Down and Southtown 101.

Clockwise from top left: Smolensky's recent neon pieces Back That Peach Up, Trouser Fruit, Dirty Hands and Banana Spit. - Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
Courtesy Photo / Adam Smolensky
Clockwise from top left: Smolensky's recent neon pieces Back That Peach Up, Trouser Fruit, Dirty Hands and Banana Spit.
Puking clouds and naughty fruit

In July of this year, Smolensky completed an amusing personal project: a wincing cloud vomiting a rainbow.

“I might do a series of puking clouds,” he posted on social media.

Playful, irreverent and reminiscent of an emoji that never was, it set the tone for the body of work being shown at FL!GHT this month.

Other works in the series include a set of rainbow-striped lips being licked by a red tongue (Disco Lips), a ubiquitous sexual hand gesture (Dirty Hands) and a suggestive series the artist sums up as “naughty fruit” (Banana Spit, Trouser Fruit, Back That Peach Up, Frooty Call).

When we spoke to Smolensky earlier this week, he was still busy working on a piece that spells out the exhibition’s title: “Growing Old Is Mandatory, but Growing Up Is Optional.”

When asked about the title, Smolensky offered, “I thought it was fitting for the humor that’s associated with the show.”

“Growing Old Is Mandatory, but Growing Up Is Optional”
Free, preview 6-9 p.m. Thursday December 1, opening reception 6-10 p.m. Friday, December 2, on view 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through Jan. 1, FL!GHT Gallery, 112R Blue Star, (210) 872-2586, facebook.com/flightsa.

Coming soon: SA Current Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting San Antonio stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.

Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles

Newsletters

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.