Neon signs are a dying art, but one man is keeping the Vancouver night bright.
In Bending Light, Vancouver-based filmmaker Stray Matter takes a look at the work of Andrew Hibbs. Hibbs is the owner and operator of Endeavour Neon, one of the handful of companies in Vancouver still making neon signs.
Hibbs spent years watching his father hand bend neon out of their home garage. At 13, he began pumping signs – filling them with the reactant gasses that give the signs their light and colour – beginning a career that is still going strong 16 years later.
“I always liked to work with my hands. Ever since I was young I would always go fix stuff, would always be working on something,” he says. “This is all hands on. Everything is done by hand. Nothing is bent by machines or anything.”
Hibbs’ work can be seen all over Vancouver, including the “Time is Precious” sign in Gastown, the sign at the Vogue Theatre, a white neon flower installation at the TELUS Gardens, and many, many others. Hibbs’ work can come from anywhere; he recently completed a piece for a local woman who lives above the Main Street McDonald’s.
“Randomly at four in the morning she’ll hear ‘may I help you?’, so she wanted ‘may I help you?’ on the wall above her TV,” he says.
“That’s my favourite thing,” he adds. “Being able to see the final piece. You get all different colours, but the tubes are all white before they light up. You bend it all, and it takes hours and hours to do. So you’re working on this thing for a week, and you finally start putting it together, seeing it come to shape. Before it was just somebody’s idea.”
Hibbs is one of approximately four neon benders in the city, and the pool is shrinking as his colleagues retire. He says the patience and dedication needed is keeping prospective benders out of the game.
“People don’t want to learn it because it just takes so many years,” he says.
Even after 13 years of bending neon, Hibbs still considers even himself a student.
“It takes a long time to learn. I’m still learning, still getting better,” he says. “You never perfect it. It’s not a perfect science, but that’s what makes it fun. There’s always something different.”
As a practitioner of a dying art, Hibbs says he hopes he can find someone in the future with the temperment needed to pursue neon.
“I’ve had some people, not many, ask if they can work with me,” he says. “[My dad] wanted to start a school back in the day, but there wasn’t enough interest. Hopefully someone will come in and intern with me. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of time. I need somebody like that.”
The time and effort, to hear Hibbs say it, is well worth it.
“It can be really frustrating sometimes. You get a whole unit back and have to crack or break on you, and you have to start all over again,” he says.
“It can be really tough and really challenging, but I love it.”