Neon glows bright at Electric Eye

Rachele Krivichi, Contributing writer

There’s a glowing house in Bay View, a house lighted by shimmering neon. 

It’s the home and studio of Jeff Kelley and Marj Inman, owners of Electric Eye Neon. If Electric Eye sounds like a niche business, that’s because it is. Kelley and Inman pride themselves on being among the few makers of neon art in the area.

Thanks to them, this art lives strong in Milwaukee.

Electric Eye has been in operation for about 17 years and was started by Inman. She began learning about neon sign-making 25 years ago, after she left a desk job to find a more fulfilling vocation. 

Inman wanted to attend school to learn the art, but quickly discovered there are few schools left that teach it. Instead, she became an apprentice to Bill Buth, who owned a shop in Thiensville called Neon Street–Kustom Lighting. For years, she studied every night and practiced to perfect the technique of glass bending. 

She says she had no idea that she’d continue to work in the trade for the better part of the next two decades or that her work would become so popular in the city. 

Works from Electric Eye Neon can be seen all over Bay View, including Luv Unlimited, Z Chiropractic, Tonic Tavern, Café Lulu and Hi-Fi Café (a sign which they repaired). Outside Bay View, there are even more examples: Stubby’s Gastrogrub and Beer Bar, Tran’s Auto Service, Alderaan Coffee, Rustico, Savoy’s and WMSE Radio — to name a few. 

Kelley and Inman say there are many reasons why these businesses chose neon signs over cheaper alternatives, such as vinyl lettering and LED lighting. Neon signs have a longer life than their competition, which has kept them from becoming obsolete. One of the first neon signs ever to be displayed in the United States still functions today, and it was shipped from Paris in 1923. 

Also, some businesses prefer neon because the classic, custom look sets them apart from neighbors. 

When creating a sign, Kelley and Inman often work with artists and letterers to come up with the appropriate font and design for a client. After the glass is bent, the tubing is sterilized so neon and other gases can be injected. The amount of gases varies, depending on the color desired — cool colors such as blue and green have a hint of mercury or argon gas inside. Once the sign is complete, it is carefully transported and installed by hand.

An issue sign-makers have faced is the difficulty of shipping neon from abroad, due to the tendency of the glass to chip or break in transit. It’s what’s kept neon sign-making from becoming as outsourced or mass-produced as other art forms.

Neon is not just used for advertising businesses. Visual artist Jenna Knapp, a recent Mary Nohl Fellowship winner, commissioned Electric Eye to create a sign that reads, “White Media is Killing Us” as part of an installation at Inova in October. 

Inman and Kelley say they making neon, as well as the flexibility that can come with owning their own business.

They admit Electric Eye Neon doesn’t “pull in the big bucks,” but they take pride in delivering a niche service.

They say Electric Eye will survive in Milwaukee as long as other business owners value the handmade, classic look for their storefronts that they can provide. In the words of the late neon enthusiast and artist Rudi Stern, “The need for this wonderful kinetic light can only grow.”

That may not be true everywhere in 2016, but in Milwaukee, the neon light just keeps glowing and growing.