“My father, before he passed away a couple weeks ago, was asking my brother how many ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’ signs he’d made in his lifetime. The business my grandfather started, their mainstay of work was ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk,'” neon artist Roxy Rose tells SF Weekly. “My dad started to cry: 200 a week, for nearly 15 years.”
That turned out to be more than 100,000, Rose says — technically it’s about 156,000 or so. So she just had to put it in her show, Neon Family: A Tribute by Roxy Rose. What makes it far more poignant than simply a loving recognition of a parent’s life is that Rose, a transgender woman, was ‘disfellowshipped’ (which is to say, shunned) by the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses in her biological family because of her gender identity — her father among them.
But Alert-Lite’s prosaic traffic-directing signs were what put food on the table for years, until the business shuttered last November. (“He raised our family on ‘Walks, ‘” Rose says of her father.) Hence, the extra dimension to the otherwise simple phrase “Don’t Walk Away from Love.”
Rose had previously exhibited the American flag with its Bible and Quran embedded beneath the tubes of ionized gas, but otherwise every other piece was put together specially for this show, including a Stop sign that now says, “Stop Transphobia” and the four vertical letters reading “NEON.” She’s been a professional neon-sign artist since 1978 — although she more or less retired for a decade — and the act of manipulating glass tubes with one’s hands is not something you can easily walk away from. For “Love Is My Religion,” a collage of 1960s-psychdelic and LGBTQ iconography on a yellow VW Beetle door, Rose put in a number of hours from late February until just this afternoon. Her work is “always evolving,” she says.
As part of the Tenderloin’s heritage, neon signs are something the museum is keen on protecting. For instance, just across Leavenworth Street, it’s possible to capture neon signs from the same three hotels, all in the same frame: the Jefferson, the Fairfax, and the Kinney. (You can if you’re tall enough, anyway.) And “Neon Family: A Tribute by Roxy Rose” runs concurrently with both the second annual Neon Speaks Festival and Symposium (April 26-28) and the Neon Curiosity Lounge at the Museum on Friday, April 26, 1-4 p.m.
In other words, run, don’t walk, to the Tenderloin to see it.
Neon Family: A Tribute by Roxy Rose, opening Thursday, April 4, 6-9 p.m., at the Tenderloin Museum, 398 Eddy St., tenderloinmuseum.org