Todd Sanders’ neon art evokes a time when Americans found adventure simply by following the glow of gas-filled tubes beckoning toward fanciful roadside attractions. He fell in love with those slices of mid-century Americana, and has built a career designing and crafting original, entirely handmade neon works with the same time-honored techniques as those master signmakers.
He calls his style modern vintage, but considers himself a pop artist, sharing an artistic vein mined by Andy Warhol and similar creative talents. A Houston native who began pursuing his muse in earnest after moving to Austin, Sanders’ work is prized by collectors including Willie Nelson, Shepard Fairey, Norah Jones, Johnny Depp and ZZ Top.
That’s Sanders’ artwork gracing the cover of Kings of Leon’s 2013 album, Mechanical Bull. Filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Terrence Malick have put his work onscreen; it has also appeared in Esquire, Fortune, Texas Monthly and Southern Living magazines, and is about to be featured on the cover of Southwest Airlines’ Spirit. Sanders’ most popular design, his animated, 5-foot by 30-inch “Fireflies in a Mason Jar,” originally was created for the wedding of fellow Texan Miranda Lambert to Blake Shelton. Sanders’ pieces also hang in iconic Austin venues including the Continental Club and Threadgill’s, and he has been invited to exhibit as a special featured artist in the 2014 Architectural Digest Home Design Show. The juried event, held each March in New York City, is considered North America’s top luxury-market design show.
Before pursuing fine art, Sanders studied graphic art in college. A chance spring-break trip through Austin ignited his passion for both the city and neon art, so he relocated and found work at a neon sign company. He stayed three years before starting his own business in 1995. In 2007, he left commercial signage behind to devote himself to his art.
“I’m really glad that things progressed the way they did because it allowed me to learn the technical aspects that make my work so authentic,” Sanders says. His creations begin with hand-drawn designs, which go to fabricators who bend neon-, mercury- and argon-filled vacuum tubes and shape the metal on which they’re mounted. Working at his Roadhouse Relics studio, itself a funky Austin landmark, he carefully paints and weathers the metal, using a process he developed himself to accelerate rusting.
Sanders is devoted to preserving the art form and elevating appreciation of its importance to 20th-century pop culture. But he also faces the challenge of conveying that his work is original, not restoration or reproduction (though he has done both in the past). Lately, he’s been incorporating modern phrases; one recent creation carries a question mark and the letters WTF.
As for the permanence of his own work, he says, “I like to make art that, when you die, your kids will fight over.”