At Gerald Collard’s studio in an old industrial building across from the Lachine Canal, he and his family are creating a neon revival in Montreal, one sign at a time.
Collard has been creating neon signs for nearly forty years. A professional glass-blower by trade, he doesn’t think there are many more like him.
“It’s about 90 per cent art,” Collard tells Global News.
“You have to bend glass to write the letters, the words, the drawings. And it’s about 10 per cent science. You have to light it up.”
His love for neon signs has remained strong throughout the decades. It was a romance that began when he first saw the Farine Five Roses sign as a boy. He says it was “poetry in the night.”
But though neon once dominated main streets like Ste-Catherine and St Hubert, its presence in Montreal dwindled in recent years.
“I went through many phases of neon. Like in the 50s the Las Vegas neon, kind of a casino era. Then it went down and came back in that Miami Vice style sort of in the 90s, 80s. Then neon came back recently about five years ago. Now more in the design way,” said Collard.
He says neon had fallen from grace in favour of LED lights, which take less electricity and are brighter. But he thinks LED is missing something that neon has.
“Neon took a different avenue which is more personal, more artistic and uplifting,” he told Global News.
Now, stores, restaurants, hotels and more are all calling to have neon symbols and slogans made in his shop.
“People take selfies with the logo of the brand with the logo behind them. It’s not as much a sign as a landmark. More of a design piece. It adds personality to the restaurant or the store. It’s a new life for neon and it’s very fun,” he said.
For Collard, it’s a family affair. He works with his daughter and sister, and also with young Montreal artists he’s taking under his wing.
“We are a neon family, yes. but I include in that the new kids who want to work in this trade,” says Collard.
Matt Soar of Concordia’s Montreal Signs project isn’t surprised neon has had a small resurgence.
“It’s so distinct,” he told Global News.
“When you see neon around the city it can be nothing else. It’s something that stirs our memories. It stirs nostalgia for the past, and makes those connections to history in really important ways.”
For his part, Collard is working constantly. And more time near open flames means more burns from contact with scalding hot glass.
“It doesn’t mean I can’t work well, it means I work a lot!” he says.
He’s not sure how long the neon boom will last in Montreal, but wouldn’t be surprised if it goes out of style again.
“Probably! It will be normal. I’ve seen many phases. But now we’re happy, it’s rolling good.”
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