MARBLEHEAD — Most people just admire vintage neon signs when they pass them by. Kristen Nyberg sees, and has captured their images, as works of art.
The Marblehead resident and single mother spent the majority of her adulthood after college working freelance jobs in order to pave her way through life.
Now, with her only daughter off at college, she’s given herself permission to pursue the art she’s been wanting to create since she graduated from art school, which is using oil paint to recapture iconic neon signs.
“I joke that this is my mid-life crisis and my handling of my empty nest syndrome, or whatever you want to call it, but after 30 years it’s really just me giving myself permission to pursue my own creativity and to pursue something I’ve always wanted to,” she said. “I should have done it sooner.”
Beginning Aug. 11, Nyberg’s pieces will have their own room at the Marblehead Arts Association and they’ll remain there for six weeks. The exhibit, called Modern Moonlight, will feature 12 of her pieces that celebrate neon signs from various Massachusetts locations, some iconic and others she thinks have been overlooked. The concept came from the 1972 Jonathan Richman song, “Roadrunner.”
“I’m in love with Massachusetts and the neon when it’s cold outside,” extolling the joys of driving around suburban Boston “…with the radio on at night. And me in love with modern moonlight,” the song declares.
“It’s about the emotions that can be evoked by these signs and the nostalgia people have when seeing them,” Nyberg said. “When you’re walking by and there’s a red glow on the sidewalk because it’s raining and the neon is splashed on the street because it’s reflecting off the rain, it’s creating this great atmosphere. One you can’t get anywhere else.”
Nyberg grew up in Marblehead before she went off to the Philadelphia College of Art, which years later combined with the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts to become The University of the Arts. In 1986, she graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts with a major in illustration and a minor in graphic design. Soon afterward she began freelancing for various companies seeking illustration skills.
“It was a tough, competitive field and it was right at the cusp of the very beginning of computer graphics and people were using a lot more photography than they were illustration,” she said. “I ended up doing what every single kid who graduates art school does. I worked at an art supplies store.”
She started off at a store in Philadelphia before returning to Boston. After she outgrew selling supplies to other artists instead of creating her own art, she worked in the signage industry, illustrating designs for signs, creating signage packages, and mocking them up with her photoshop savviness. That’s really what jump-started her passion for the vintage landmarks, since she was learning so much about them.
Even though Nyberg enjoyed what she was doing, she still didn’t have enough time to create pieces of art for herself. Quickly becoming intrigued by the neon signs she came across either in her work or in her travels, she began taking photos of them in 2003.
As the years went by, she noticed the signs disappearing from their landmarks. Owners of real estate hoping to modernize their properties took the signs down and Nyberg thought the representation of another era in design was being lost. She didn’t begin painting her own projects until a few years ago, and her passion for neon smoothly integrated into them.
“To have the sign and the faces of the people represented properly, you do have to use multiple photos with various focus areas as well as lighting,” she said. “If you take a picture of a neon sign, unless you’re a professional photographer, you’re never going to get the color right. You want to show it the way the eye sees it, not the way the camera sees it, even if you’re using photographic reference.”
There are a lot of creative people in the Nyberg family. Her grandfather was a woodworker, two of her aunts went to art school, and her daughter is in college studying graphic design for video games. She believes art is extremely beneficial for mental health, especially in children, and she is ecstatic at the various community art initiatives across the North Shore.
She believes the Beyond Walls Festivals in Lynn and the developments being built around community art projects in Salem and Peabody are a way of bringing people in the community together through art.