We only need four letters to describe the final featured guest in our MSN artists series: COOL. Neon pop artist Todd Sanders of Roadhouse Relics is busy these days making hand-weathered signs for people like Shepard Fairey, Johnny Depp, and Billy Gibbons (even Google commissioned a piece for their headquarters!) so we were beyond thrilled when he invited us inside his iconic gallery and workspace on South First. For me and many others, Todd’s work has been a defining contribution to the visual landscape of Austin. Like his glowing Mercury Man that hangs near the stage at The Continental Club, every Roadhouse Relics piece feels like it’s somehow been here forever. On a most perfect South Austin day (with our buddy Chad behind the lens) Todd took us inside his studio and offered us cold beers while we explored his “neon boneyard” out back. We spent the day talking vintage signs, old trucks, and his journey from making commercial signage to fine art…


Todd hangs out in front of the trailer he lived in for 10 years that now sits behind the gallery. The Austin sign, one of his favorites, was rescued from the old Butter Krust Bakery.

Your career in neon has evolved from commercial work to custom movie props and now to fine art. What prompted the transition?

I always wanted to be a fine artist, but didn’t have the confidence to do so when I was younger. So I went into a “practical” form of art: sign making. When I finally gained the confidence, I still had a passion for vintage neon signs — I also had years of technical experience under my belt.  It just felt right to become a pop artist working through the medium of neon signs. There was no one else out there at the time; I like to think of myself as a pioneer of sorts.


Your gallery on South First has become pretty iconic. Can you tell us a little about the space and how you use it?

I purchased an old crumbling fruit stand that closed in the 1980’s. I lived in the trailer out back for ten years and restored the space into an art gallery. It’s now my studio where I sketch my designs. I then craft and weather each sign by hand.


You’ve described what you do as “modern vintage”. Is there a certain time period that inspires the “vintage” aspect of your signs?

I follow the school of neon sign makers who came before me, particularly the neon artists of the 1940’s. I recently began adding modern phrases and symbols into my work, to create a paradigm shift in the viewer’s mind. I love when someone thinks my work is actually an antique neon sign — but it has the modern phrase — and they can’t wrap their mind around it until they realize that it’s a new work of art.


Your commercial signs are so much a part of Austin’s vibe and visual landscape now. Was there much neon around when you moved here in the 90’s?

There was no neon on South First Street at that time. There were some antique signs still in use, some of which I rescued and put in my “boneyard” out back. But I no longer make commercial signs. There’s just no legacy to it. A lot of the old signs I made are gone. When a place goes out of business or changes hands… things can end up in the junkyard.


You’ve been described as uniquely self-taught in the neon craft. What resources have built that education?

Four years of college, graphic design and advertising. Four years of apprenticing at a commercial neon sign shop. 20 years of unearthing the old sign techniques from vintage trade journals, and meeting the old neon artists from the 1940’s who were still around.


Do you use digital technology at any point in your process?

I don’t use computer-aided design. You just don’t get the same effect in the work. The designs are sketched by hand, in fact the entire process is done by hand. I think that more and more people have a greater desire to own something made by hand, a true original work.


I stuck with this a long time before it really took off. People didn’t get it. I’d have this perfectly nice sign and then they’d come back two days later and it was all distressed and weathered and messed up. They were like, ‘What’s wrong with you, man?!'”

One wall of Todd’s studio is completely covered in concept sketches.

Do you do commissions or custom work for clients?

I prefer to create pieces and put them in my gallery for purchase, but I do custom commissions as well.


What is your favorite project thus far in your career?

I proposed to my wife with a neon sign. We met when she came into the gallery to buy a work of art — bought it right off the wall. That didn’t happen too often back then… so I felt it was only right to propose with a neon sign.


In what types of spaces has your work been installed?

Movie sets, restaurants… and it eventually started being purchased to go into fine art collections. I remember when I was first sent a photo of a piece I created, flanked by Warhol prints.


What do you love about being an artist?

The proudest moment of my career came when I started supporting myself by making art exclusively. The knowledge that these pieces will live on for many years after I’m gone… a neon legacy.


What do you not love about being an artist?

Nothing. I’ll admit — it’s very hard. I suffered for years, paying my dues up front. But nothing that’s worth doing is ever easy.

 


Describe your art in five words:

Unique, weathered, glowing pop art.


Todd leans against the 1959 Chevrolet Apache pickup he restored with his father.

I finally found the truck I was looking for online and drove all the way up to Alexandria, Virginia to get it. When I got there it was the biggest piece of junk you’d ever seen. Looked like it was carved out of Bondo. Drove all the way back and found the exact same truck in Conroe, Texas. Right down the road from where I was to begin with. All in pieces — but it was exactly what I wanted.


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*all photos by Chad Wadsworth

43 comments
  1. 1
    Molly {Dreams in HD} | May 20, 2013 at 8:26 am

    absolutely fascinating. thank you so much for sharing. i recently visited the american sign museum in cincinnati {opened last summer} and it is filled with antique neon and marquee signs. so inspiring!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 8:39 am

      Very cool — the sign museum sounds fantastic! I’ll have to remember that for the next time I visit my friend in Cincinnati. Thanks, Molly!

      Reply
  2. 2
    FripperyVintage | May 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Love all the photos, I love anything in neon.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 10:20 am

      I know, I love neon too! I’m saving up for one of Todd’s pieces. 🙂 Chad did a fantastic job with the photos.

      Reply
  3. 3
    Katie O'Keefe | May 20, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Oh my goodness, I love this. The story and all the neon!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Awesome, Katie! We were so excited to share something a little different for our readers this morning. Glad you liked it.

      Reply
  4. 4
    Chris Bomely | May 20, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Great Article!!! The photos are great, and the interview is perfection! Nice work.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      Cool. Thanks, Chris!

      Reply
  5. 5
    diane smith | May 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    This story was amazing!!! Loved learning about this talented artist & his unique art form. I have admired his work…how fun to learn more about the artist behind these fantastic pieces. A true American success story!!! Nice to know that hard work & diligence still pay off. ( I agree, the “Marry Me Sarah” sign was awesome!)

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      Isn’t it cool? Of course she said “yes!”

      Reply
  6. 6
    Nancy W. Sawyer | May 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Very interesting article, Jennifer. Your descriptions of his work made me feel like I was on the interview with you. Great work. I will look for his pieces on my next trip to fabulous Austin!!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm

      Thanks so much, Nancy! His studio/gallery is located on South First Street. Definitely stop in on your next visit to Austin.

      Reply
  7. 7
    Millicent Stafford | May 20, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    LOVE LOVE!!! Enjoyed reading about the artist and his accomplishments. Thought the
    “RED TOP” was my favorite, but forwarded to the $ sign…..think I like it even better.
    GREAT work and so interesting. Makes me want to add NEON somewhere .

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 3:25 pm

      I agree, Millicent! Would be cool to have a bit of neon somewhere in my living room… Todd says he makes his signs with dimmers so you can adjust the brightness for indoor use.

      Reply
  8. 8
    Winzer | May 20, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    Super cool article Jen! I love the “modern vintage” trend, and it has become so iconic in Austin. That’s awesome that he didn’t change his art to fit the trends but weathered thru and helped create something new! How neat!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      Thanks, Winz! Todd is one of those really cool people who helped make Austin such a special place. It’s truly an honor to feature him on our site!

      Reply
  9. 9
    The Design Daredevil | May 20, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    Amazing! I’m dying for some neon in my life!

    Reply
  10. 10
    Patsyann Reed | May 20, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Will be in Austin this weekend and will be able to share info on the signs because of your great article and pictures. I love local history and appreciate your talents in researching and sharing it.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 7:53 pm

      Thank you so much, Patsyann! Have fun while you’re in town!

      Reply
  11. 11
    Andrea | May 20, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    I need to go out to the gallery!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      You should definitely stop in sometime, Andrea. The backyard is too cool.

      Reply
  12. 12
    maggie | May 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    Great article Jenn! Love learning more about the artist and hearing his story, design process, and the fact that he lived in the trailer for 10 years and now it’s his office…very inspiring!
    xx

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      Thanks, Maggie! That trailer is pretty sweet. He said that it’s a way cooler brand than Airstream…

      Reply
  13. 13
    Mark Winzer | May 20, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    The pictures of his neon art are great. I like when someone takes an old craft and uses it in a new and different way. The story of his career is inspiring to all of us who dream of creating something different. Thanks for sharing

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 20, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      I couldn’t agree more, Sir. Very inspiring indeed.

      Reply
  14. 14
    Allen Sanders | May 21, 2013 at 1:22 am

    Awesome article Jennifer! I’m proud of my brother!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 21, 2013 at 6:10 am

      Thanks, Allen! And fun meeting you at the gallery. I’ll have to get out to one of your band’s shows soon. The Sanders are one artistic family!

      Reply
  15. 15
    Elizabeth | May 21, 2013 at 7:45 am

    Awesome interview! Drive by this place all the time and have always wanted to know more about it. Love his work and always enjoy hearing a talented artists story- thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

      Thanks, Elizabeth!

      Reply
  16. 16
    Miro - Dose of Dash | May 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    I love this place! And of course the iconic Austin mural on the side wall. Great post!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 21, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      Yes — we love that mural! Todd said that he and two of his neighbors painted it together years ago. Very cool.

      Reply
  17. 17
    sara | May 21, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    these pictures are amazing! awesome story, Jenn!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 21, 2013 at 6:03 pm

      Thank you, Sara! You should check out the photographer’s portfolio site. He’s sick! http://www.chadwadsworth.com

      Reply
  18. 18
    Susan Nix | May 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Wow, Jennifer! Seeing pictures of those neon signs made me feel so nostalgic and brought a big smile to my face! Loved your interview with Todd! What a FUN “job” he has! And what a fun job you seem to have!!! Good job, Jennifer! So proud of you!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 23, 2013 at 8:34 am

      Thank you so much, Mrs. Nix. Yes, I think “fun” is the perfect word for my job! Thanks for checking out the site!

      Reply
  19. 19
    Carole Judy | May 22, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Jennifer, congratulations on getting the reader drawn in to the article. You know I loved the article…artists, Todd is very talented, so glad to see the photos; neon signs take me back to very fond memories. So proud of you and your accomplishments

    Reply
    • Jennifer Rose Smith | May 23, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Thanks, Carole! I love connecting with people who are creating unique art. You’ll have to pass this story on to Chris — I think he would love to check out Todd’s gallery the next time he’s in Austin.

      Reply
  20. 20
    Michael Saikin | May 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    This is just one of the endless things that makes me miss ol’ Austin.

    Reply
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