SHE’S GOT THAT GLOWIN’ FEELING: Neon Museum welcomes artist-in-residence

It would be hard to find a place more unabashedly over the top than Las Vegas.

From the height of a showgirl’s headdress to the dazzle of the neon Strip, the city prides itself on being extra fabulous.

This flamboyance is part of what drew L.A.-based artist Julie Henson to town.

Henson, the Neon Museum’s 2019 national artist-in-residence, has long been interested in theatrics and “the kind of over-the-top personalities that go into who we select as public figures, pop stars” and other performers.

Her work — sculptures, videos and installations — often features elements commonplace in Vegas: wigs, feathers, sequins, stage lights.

“I’ve long been fascinated with Las Vegas,” she says. “A lot of my work has to do with myths and shared beliefs through the lens of performers and audiences, so a major interest for me was to understand how Las Vegas functions on that level.”

Julie Henson, Neon Museum artist in residence 2019. (Courtesy Julie Henson)

Julie Henson, Neon Museum artist in residence 2019. (Courtesy Julie Henson)

Another draw, of course, was the residency itself, which brings a working artist to the nonprofit museum for eight weeks each summer and provides lodging in a downtown apartment, studio space, a stipend and travel allowance. (This year’s residency runs from June 26 through Aug. 21.)

An even more attractive benefit is the freedom to focus on creative work.

“Time and space to work is something that artists struggle to find,” Henson says. “The fact that (the residency) offers two months of uninterrupted time to work is a really spectacular opportunity.”

Now in its fourth year, the Neon Museum residency, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, also builds in benefits for locals. It features opportunities to interact with and learn from the resident artist, along with a public-engagement project.

Cynthia Behr Warso, the Downtown museum’s director of curation and education, says the residency brings in artists who want to connect with the community, rather than simply concentrate on their own artistic development. This helps build the museum’s audiences.

“We really focus heavily on the audience-engagement component,” Warso says.

Henson notes that she appreciates this focus because she enjoys “having conversations about work and what people are seeing. My work directly engages with pop culture, and it creates an opportunity to talk about the things that we experience every day but don’t necessarily put language to,” she says. “That’s really exciting to me.”

Henson stood out among 82 residency applicants in part because she incorporates sculpture, digital technology and graphic design into her work, Behr Warso says. That seemed a natural fit for the Neon Museum, which is dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs.

“She has a great affinity for what we do here,” Warso says. “We educate people through the stories of signs.”

Henson plans to spend her Las Vegas time investigating the ways in which myth and narrative are employed in signage to express desire, risk, luck and fortune. As she explains:  

“From an outsider’s perspective, there is this tradition (in Las Vegas) of gambling and winning it all and becoming something that you aren’t. That rags-to-riches story is so pervasive in our daily lives, and I think Las Vegas is an emblem of that idea.”

She also plans to create works based on the signage in the museum’s collection and around the city, perhaps “soft” sculptures that “take these really hard-edged, bright signs and boil them down to essential elements.” Her idea is to sew these sculptures out of fabric “so they’ll flow and be more malleable than the original signs.”

Henson, 36, first became intrigued by theatrics as a child growing up in a “super-religious family” in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I grew up going to a megachurch in the South,” she recalls. “My early experiences were over-the-top” performances associated with religion. “In a lot of ways, that feeds my interpretation of other types of performers and the ways we build shared beliefs and narratives as a culture. As humans, we love to suspend disbelief and go along with things.”

While Henson has maintained this interest over more than a decade living in California, she has by now mostly lost her Southern accent. “I always say, ‘Give me a drink or two and it shows up.’”


Meet the Artists events:

What: Artist talk and community mixer

When: July 11 @ 7 p.m.

Where: The Writer’s Block @ The Lucy, 519 S. 6th St., Las Vegas


What: Artist Open House

When: Aug. 16 @ 6 p.m.

Where: Ne10 Studio, 1001. W. Bonanza Road, Las Vegas

For more information, visit www.neonmuseum.org/education/artists-in-residence/julie-henson or www.neonmuseum.org.

To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.

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