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Neon-inspired artist to leave mark on Las Vegas museum

Her studio mates are an imposing bunch.

“They’re hovering over my shoulder like, ‘Hey what’re you doing?’ ” artist Julie Henson says. “Everywhere I look!”

Inside the Neon Museum’s warehouse, familiar faces such as Vegas Vic and Vegas Vicky loom over the artist-in-residence’s workspace.

For eight weeks, Henson lived, worked and created in Las Vegas. And now one of her works will enter the Neon Museum’s permanent collection.

The Los Angeles sculpture artist initially planned to create smaller works. But in the museum’s warehouse, bedecked on all sides with towering marquees belonging to the Stardust, the Golden Nugget, Studio 54 and other larger-than-life icons, Henson quickly scrapped that idea.

“I thought, ‘Why am I making tiny, polite things in this space?’ ” she says. “The sheer scale of everything around me, my things that would look big in other spaces look teensy tiny here. So I changed course and started on bigger things.”

As the fourth artist-in-residence as part of the Neon Museum’s program, Henson found common ground between her prior body of work and the scale and neon of Las Vegas’ most iconic landmarks.

Henson grew up playing with her mom’s art supplies in South Carolina. In college, she started seriously pursuing art, specifically gravitating toward sculpture.

Jo Russ, arts program manager for the Neon Museum, was on the panel that selected Henson for the residency.

“The concepts in her work look at art, fame, luck and success,” Russ says. “These themes are all incorporated in the Neon Museum’s collection.”

Much of Henson’s work focuses on the ideas of “shared myths,” what she describes as stories and ideologies people share, and the ways they are presented.

She spends a lot of time thinking about the ways that those myths manifest: on billboards, on stage and through performance.

“I really like thinking about how people relate to objects,” she says. “I like billboards. I love the scale and they have really pervasive messaging that’s easy to grasp.”

One myth Henson likes to entertain is the idea of the American dream.

“From a total outsider’s perspective, Las Vegas presents itself as a place where anything can happen,” she says. “It’s deeply rooted in the American dream. That idea of risk and luck, it exists here.”

Once Henson decided her art needed to reflect the magnitude of the signs around her, she began to consider the messaging within some of those signs.

One of her projects is a pair of large-scale fabric marquees, one of which reads “Star,” the other “Dust.”

Velvet, satin and glass beads make up the marquees, a nod to the textiles used to create performers’ costumes.

They’re held up on narrow poles, which allows the frayed fabric to bend and droop. Henson doesn’t mind if visitors notice those imperfections.

While “Star” and “Dust” will go home with her, her sculpture based on “Mirage” will enter the museum’s permanent collection.

Her fabric version of The Mirage marquee is secured with a neon rod.

“It’s reversing the roles of the materials,” Henson explains. “Fabric stands in for the big, powerful, long-lasting material. And the neon is holding it up.”

While spending time with Las Vegas’ neon signs, she observed how they transform. By night, they glitter and shine. But in daylight, cracks, dirt and decay are evident.

She finds that portraying the marquee through a deflated medium, one that fails to hold its shape, conveys that discrepancy.

“It’s a metaphor,” says Henson. “I want people to see my work and recognize things in it and come away with an understanding of what that thing represents for them.”

Contact Janna Karel at jkarel@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.

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