Poetry in the city: the return of Montreal's neon lights

Glass artist Gerald Collard checks out one of his latest neon sign Wednesday, November 1, 2017 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL - In Montreal's Gay Village, a red-orange glow radiates from a Vietnamese tapas restaurant onto a side street lined with red, brown and grey-bricked apartment buildings.

Neon-infused glass tubes have been melted and twisted into the words "Cang dong cang vui," meaning "the more the merrier," and mounted conspicuously on a wall above the kitchen, which serves dishes inspired by Southeast Asian street food.

Lucent scenes such as this can be found across the cityscape, from a tiki bar in Chinatown with a green neon pineapple adorning its entrance to a cherry-red neon condor stretching its wings in a downtown Peruvian restaurant serving pisco cocktails.

Behind much of the resurgence of the city's neon lights is a 59-year-old artist who works out of a 75-square-metre studio in a slightly derelict, repurposed factory that used to make porcelain toilets along the southern bank of Montreal's Lachine Canal.

"They used to say you made it when you get your name in neon lights," said Gerald Collard, who has spent 40 years working with neon gas and electrified tubes.

Collard, along with his sister and daughter, opened "Neon Family" three years ago to satisfy the renewed and growing demand for neon lighting.

Neon connotes nightlife, action, the inherent vice of urban centres, he said. "It's poetry in the city."

Montreal's downtown, like many other North American cities, was bathed in neon for a good part of the 20th century.

Today, however, neon in the city can be found indoors — sought after by restaurateurs seeking carefully manicured spots in their venue to serve as backdrops in pictures destined for social media pages.

Designer Guillaume Menard, who chose the neon tubing for the Gay Village's Vietnamese tapas restaurant, Le Red Tiger, said young restaurateurs are highly conscious of how the interiors of their restaurants will look on Instagram.

"It's really a constraint they impose on me," said Menard, of Atelier Mainor. He said he noticed a change in restaurateurs over the last couple years.

"For my clients younger than 35, they ask, 'What will people take photos of at our place?'"

To have a young woman with 50,000 Instagram followers snap a shot of "the best sandwich I had all week" with a neon logo of the restaurant in the background is free advertising for the venue, he said.

If a photo of a recognizable architectural feature is widely shared on social media, it is also great visibility for the designer, Menard explained.

"The more people take photos of your place the more visibility you have — it's simple," he said.

Back at Neon Family, artist Fanny-Jane Pelletier is sitting on the studio's mezzanine with her legs dangling over the main workspace.

She is one of Collard's apprentices and spends time learning how to melt, bend and twist neon glass tubes for school credit.

"He's my guru," she said of Collard. "This morning I was actually thinking of making something with neon and cement."

Collard said he chose the name, Neon Family, in part because he wanted to create a family of artists who would carry on the traditional techniques of melting, bending and blowing glass when he retires.

But for that to happen, orders need to keep coming in, something Collard recognizes is not guaranteed.

"It's probably going to fade," he said about neon's current popularity. "But right now we are enjoying the wave."

Menard, meanwhile, said he has stopped suggesting his clients use a neon sign as a centrepiece in their venue.

"Personally, for me, it's finished," said Menard. "We will start to exploit (neon) in different ways. But I think Neon Family has many good years ahead of it."


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