An artist primarily recognized for working with light, Lisa Schulte was left without sight at the young age of seven following a freak accident. “I was shot in the eye with a BB gun,” she explains. The doctors were worried about the movement of her pupils after the incident, so they patched both of them shut and she lived in complete darkness for months. Like a superhero origin story, the tragic event of loss taught Schulte to see the world in a different way when the bandages were removed. Exercising patience and appreciation for how light interacts with surfaces and how it’s understood as an experience became significant to her being. Decades later, Schulte is known as the "Neon Queen," a go-to artist and designer for all things neon.
Schulte’s passion for manipulating light began to really take shape as she entered her formative years. At 17, she started working in nightclubs operating light boards and by her twenties, she figured she “was destined to work with light” because it brought so much joy. From the early 1970s onward, Schulte was always involved with working in light. She even sold laser systems for eye surgery for a short time after college: “The light and the eye has been a consistent theme in my life. Everything that I have done deals with light. It was not conscious early on but there was always something there with the light.”
It was 1984 when Schulte started to play around with neon lighting, the medium she is most well-known for. During this time, Schulte was presented with an opportunity that provided a platform for growth. The Olympics were coming to Los Angeles and a production company was looking for someone to design a futuristic installation at the Pacific Design Center. “I designed it out of neon and assumed I could get people to construct it for me but no one could do it," she says. This led Schulte to begin the process of solving her own design problems and hiring a staff for support. “I had to figure it out. I was thrown into a larger-than-life production with no easy answers.”
Together, Schulte and the team made it happen. “I went to sign shops and figured out a way to get the desired result I needed to make three-dimensional and abstract shapes from neon,” she says. The end result was a massive installation that involved several people and hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I realized how powerful this medium was and that I was good at it.” From paper drawings to the final concept, Schulte was able to keep all the materials after the exhibition. This helped establish her own company, Nights of Neon, which is still in operation today.
For years afterward, individual and corporations alike sought similar sized projects that involved all sorts of creative solutions and inventions from Schulte’s studio. It was that wave of activity that allowed her studio to become one of the largest collections of neon in the world. While Schulte is an artist at heart, she did not feel confident enough to create her own personal work despite the wild success of her business. Maintaining professional projects consistently for close to 20 years, her desire to reinvent herself coincided with the economic downturn in 2008. “There was lull in my business and it had a lot to do with the economy. Lots of films were leaving L.A. and it brought the city to a halt. I felt like I was going to lose my studio and it had run its course.“
Schulte decided: “If this is it, I need to create my own work and not be just a gun for hire.” She was not content with her creative output through the business and dreamed of new ways of working with light. Her 25,000-square-foot studio looked like a mixture between museum storage and a working factory, so she had every possible machine she needed to make anything in neon. It was the perfect time to chart her own path: “I was going to enjoy myself creating my own work and [that thinking] totally turned it all around.”
What followed were group shows, then solo shows and finally a museum exhibition. Schulte has the unique ability to use a medium that is inherently cold and isolating and create something warm and inviting. Think diner and no vacancy signs embedded with an incredible sense of motion and feeling and you begin to understand the expression she is able to connote in these works. Her special knowledge and background as an artisan put her in rare company. Having refined her craft, she has become a specialist for all things neon, even to other artists who wish to work in the medium.
If an artist out there wants to translate their work to neon, she is the one to call — "call the Neon Queen" is the recommendation. Sometimes acting as a collaborator and in other times as an advisor, Schulte reflects upon recent partnerships with artists like Cleon Peterson, RISK and Gregory Siff: “Graffiti artists are my favorite because they really enjoy collaborating. There is an energy that feels natural and they respect one another’s expertise.” In the instance of Peterson, “I bring a softness to his violent figures,” she adds.
The Neon Queen label has also stuck, as Schulte has no control over it. A title of admiration and trust, “it was given to me over the years and I have begun to take it all in and embrace it,” she says. Although this sentiment didn’t come right away: “It took a long time for me to accept it. Turning 60 had something to do with it. Reflecting on my whole life, more than half of it has been working with neon lights.“ And as technology speeds on, neon continues to burn bright for Schulte.