The whoosh of the cross-fire torches and ribbon burners switched on suddenly. The buzz of the portable neon manifold hummed, and a Tesla coil zzzaped while electrode seals were tested. Backstage the girls ate croissants and avocado sandwiches, dressed in DIY fashion: bleach-dyed t-shirts and khaki slacks repeatedly stamped with “STOP MEN!” Femme fans lined themselves around the block wearing limited edition merch and clutching catalogs ready to be signed.
But who were they waiting for? Riot Girl? No. They were in line for She Bends, the femme-led and artist-run organization that showed up at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA, with one mission—to redefine neon’s legacy.
I had the honor of attending the opening weekend of this exhibition where contributing artists provided neon-bending demonstrations, bombarding tutorials (courtesy of manifold master Dani Kaes and the Gas Filling Tube Suckers), and a panel discussion. I also had the opportunity to meet with Meryl Pataky (founder of She Bends) and Kelsey Issel (director of programs at She Bends). Together, they shared with me the core mission of She Bends and how it grew out of a desire to create space for supporting women in the neon industry. It became clear that this was more than a “plug and chug” operation—these women go HARD for each other and want to see one another succeed. In my ten-year career in the glass community, this event was the first time I witnessed a hot-shop floor dominated by women and gender-expansive folks, a big win for a small-town rural queer kid like me.
The skills acquired to learn neon have traditionally been passed down via the “master-apprentice” trade in which an accomplished artist or craftsperson shares their skills with a beginner. Those with skills and knowledge determine and influence the next generation of artists within the neon community. Historically, the neon industry has been predominantly white and male-centered.
She Bends: Redefining Neon Legacy is an exhibition featuring nine artists with intersecting identities alongside the women who taught them. Together, their pieces celebrate neon teaching methods and the women who have practiced knowledge-sharing leadership over the past two decades. Their collaborations have reshaped the neon pipeline and transformed the skill set from a tool for industry and capitalist profit to an artistic material for self-expression, personal narratives, and cultural identity politics.
The artists featured in this exhibition include Meryl Pataky, Lily Reeves, Daniella Thach, Sarah Blood, Jude Abu Zaineh, Carissa Grace, Victoria Ahmadizadeh Melendez, Kacie Lees, and Stephanie Sara Lifshutz. The exhibition also screened Danny Corey’s film, Las Vegas Bender, featuring Leticia ‘Tiza’ Maldonado.
Here are some featured works:
Jude Abu Zaineh
Jude created tend to grow (watermelons) during her 2021 residency with She Bends under the advisement of Meryl Pataky. Regarding the context of the work Jude affirms, “The watermelon is an agricultural staple and beloved summer fruit in Palestine. It also serves as a longstanding symbol of Palestinian resistance and perseverance, especially after all displays of the Palestinian flag and its colours were banned by oppressive, colonial Israeli forces. The watermelon, mirroring the same colours as the Palestinian Flag, became emblematic of national pride and freedom of expression.”
Carissa’s neon installation is constructed of chain-linked neon tubing filled with argon. The soft bend at the bottom of the installation implies that the form can soften and take the shape of whatever it is draped over, as its title, Comforter, implies. Carissa interprets the impermeable haze that we call “memory” and utilizes light as a metaphorical bridge for that which cannot be seen. Neon allows her to question the relationship between authenticity and imagination. She seeks to make memories tangible.
Carissa completed this installation in 2019 as part of her BFA thesis exhibition at Alfred University. She was taught by Sarah Blood.
Victoria Ahmadizadeh Melendez
Lost without fields to fill,
I don’t know what those tinted glasses do to
soften the edges of every moving thing:
beneath you, through you, and there with you.
As I replied, looking into your
examining them closely to find
little pins like gems inside:
a quiet life,
a couple of times over.by Victoria Ahmadizadeh Melendez
Victoria’s art practice seams together the written word and the coded meaning we assign to objects, resulting in what she calls a “redeemed dreamscape.” Her gorgeous arrangement of objects is informed by the Zoroastrian haftsin, the practice of arranging symbolic objects on a table every spring equinox while celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Victoria is also inspired by her mother’s jewelry, charms, and trinkets collection, which her mother began after parting with a family collection when immigrating to the United States from Puerto Rico. Of her relationship with the neon community, Victoria states, “My choice to claim space in these industries (glass and neon being traditionally male-dominated) is an inherently political statement, and I hope to be one of the people opening up these territories for more diverse participation.”
Victoria was taught by Jessica Jane Julius. The first artist to invite her into a neon studio and teach her the process was Stephanie Sara Lifshutz.
She Bends is an organization dedicated to building a more equitable future for neon through public education, curatorial projects, and artist programs that foster diversity and sustainability. You can visit their website here to learn more about their mission and programs. She Bends: Redefining Neon Legacy will be on view at the Tacoma Museum of Glass until October 2023.
 She Bends: Redefining Neon Legacy, artist statements: Jude Abu Zaineh on tend to grow (watermelons), Museum of Glass, February 01, 2023, https://www.museumofglass.org/as-the-pipe-turns/2023/1/19/she-bends-redefining-neon-legacy-artist-statements-jude-abu-zaineh-on-tend-to-grow-watermelons
 She Bends: Redefining Neon Legacy, artist statements: Victoria Ahmadizadeh Melendez on a quiet life, a couple of times over. Museum of Glass, February 01, 2023, https://www.museumofglass.org/as-the-pipe-turns/2023/1/19/she-bends-redefining-neon-legacy-artist-statements-victoria-ahmadizadeh-melendez-on-a-quiet-life-a-couple-of-times-over