Prominent Texas neon artist reflects on a colorful life

The old, mythical version of Austin has an appearance that occupies a place in the collective memory. It goes something like this: Guy Clark is on the radio, artists are galore, and the bright lights of a small town beckon an East Texas guy with an artist’s temperament.

neon road, a new book by Austin neon artist Todd Sanders is imbued with such sentiments. Infused with a sharp nostalgic reverence for the city that inspired it, the self-published art book presents the story of Sanders—from Montgomery to Austin, from sign maker to successful artist—along with sketches and photographs of his colorful “modern-vintage” displays. Sanders’ aesthetic is familiar to anyone who has spent time in the city, where he has produced neon and hand-painted signs since the mid-nineties. In honor of one of Austin’s watering holes, he created a sign for the Deep Eddy pool featuring an animated neon diver. Other pieces advertise live music or feature neon cowboys and pin-up boys. (One booth celebrating barbecue even graced the cover of that magazine.) At one point, its signs hung over at least thirty establishments in the city. As he put it, today “if you are going to open a place [in Austin]you need a rusty, new sign.

Similarly, his Roadhouse Relics gallery on South First Street has become a local landmark, with a famous mural and “Welcome to Austin” landmark on one wall. Among respected Texas collectors, his work is highly regarded: Willie Nelson was looking for a neon horseshoe for Luck Reunion, Miranda Lambert ordered a jar full of neon fireflies for her first wedding, and ZZ Top called on Sanders to create a vintage BBQ sign for a magazine cover. Chrome, smoke and barbecue. The band’s lead singer, Billy Gibbons, considers himself a friend of Sanders and wrote the foreword to the book.

The coffee table contains images of these and other works, as well as original sketches and photographs of the artist, his work and his loved ones. And between bright colors and hilarious shots, Sanders unfolds his story in the artist-neighbor’s folksy tone, which makes reading easy.

neon road comes to the centenary of the arrival of neon in America, introduced to this continent by the French through – what else? – advertising signs. But the real catalyst for the book was the death of Sanders’ father, Richard Sanders, two years ago. Sanders Sr. figures prominently in his son’s mythology, and therefore in the book: first as a skeptic questioning Sanders’ artistic path and condemning his choice to buy his now iconic South First Street gallery, and finally as a creator. by itself. In later years of his life, Sanders’ father made metal sculptures, including an eleven-foot-wide longhorn, and helped carve the metal bases for his son’s neon art. “It was one of the most moving moments of my life,” Sanders says when he first heard his father call himself an artist. Other special guests of the book include Hondo, a Chow-St. Bernard cross and loyal buddy who roamed the nighttime streets of Austin with Sanders in search of signs in need of repair, and Sarah, Sanders’ fifteen-year-old wife who met a sign maker after wandering into his gallery to order art.

“The idea of ​​becoming an artist”, encouraged by his father’s change of heart, is the theme of the entire book. Decades into his career, Sanders still seems to be on fire with the idea that he can just do something – and make a living! Although he admits that the life of an artist is no longer achievable in the Austin he appeared in, he says, “I can’t imagine a better life for anyone.”

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