Shocker sculptor’s neon aquarium lights up a corner of LA

Michael Flechtner’s neon aquarium

Michael Flechtner’s neon aquarium sits above the Starbucks at Olympic and Sawtelle boulevards in Los Angeles.

There’s a Starbucks on the corner of Olympic and Sawtelle boulevards in Los Angeles. You can’t miss it. Not because of the coffee shop’s own iconic green signage, but because of the neon aquarium that seems to swim above it. The artwork is by Michael Flechtner ’84, who says, “The fish swim up through the water, the jellyfish fade and brighten, the octopus waves his arms, the turtle flaps his appendages, and the sharks and dolphins fade in and out.”

Flechtner Michael
Flechtner Michael

Based in Van Nuys, California, for many years now, Flechtner hails from a small town in Ohio, where he first found fascination in drawing and painting, as well as electricity, mechanical objects, colored light, magnetism, fire and water. He went on to study sculpture and painting at Columbus College of Art & Design and then earned an MFA from Wichita State. While at WSU, he says, “I discovered my roots as an artist. That is, after learning theory, technique, history, materials and so on, I realized my art-making process stemmed from childhood, going through my grandmother’s junk drawer, finding string, pulleys, batteries, screws and wires and trying to put them together in some kind of machine or structure.”

Working in his studio, Flechtner looks like a scientist in a chemistry lab. Glass tubing is everywhere, stacked for future use or laid out for bending into shapes of sea life, say, or aircraft or fantastical machines, each shape then brought to colorful life with the insertion of neon and a deftly chosen mix of other gases and elements. Normally colorless, the noble gas neon gains color after electricity is applied. “It’s red-orange,” Flechtner says, explaining that every noble gas has its own characteristic discharge color. Argon, for example, with a drop of mercury added for brightness, glows blue.

Flechtner’s neon creations range from 2-D non-animated art to 3-D animated art and can be spotted in such far-flung places as Tokyo, Minneapolis, Ohio and Alaska. In 2010, he was commissioned to design a postage stamp for the USPS. Neon fireworks was the visual subject he chose for the forever Celebrate! stamp. Over the course of his 30-plus years as an artist specializing in neon, this Shocker has depicted just about everything: jellyfish, dolphins and sharks, airplanes, cars, cameras, cats, cows and fireworks.

What might be next?

“That danged WuShock always comes to mind,” he says. “I keep thinking what he’d look like animated in neon!”

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