“Art of Old Signs” Exhibit at DIA highlights the Neon History of the Front Range
If you’ve got somewhere to fly over the next few months, there’s a visual treat awaiting you at Denver International Airport. Not only will viewing it connect you to an artist who lives part-time in Salida, it includes illustrations of several Salida landmark neon signs.
The neon signs of the dawn of the motoring era were so bright and clever, they were hard to miss. Which was the point.
Traveling the highways and byways in the 30s, 40s and 50s the bright neon blazed out of the dusk, the dust, and the night sky, beckoning the travelers to stop for a drop, roar into the Rainbow Room, or rest their weary head at the Rest-easy Tonight. Neon was emblematic of the Historic Route 66, Las Vegas, Nevada, and just about every road stop in mid-century America.
Throughout Colorado, neon was the ultimate calling card. Now air travelers can enjoy viewing the many signs displayed throughout the city’s history at Denver International Airport (DEN — or as we locals know it — DIA). The Art of Old Signs exhibit contains illustrations of historic neon signs that line the halls throughout the Y-Juncture, on Concourse A just beyond bridge security.
The actual neon isn’t there — but their images are. The 25 illustrations reproduced on canvas for the exhibit represent a bygone era of commercial signage. All but four signs are from Colorado, with many from the Denver area and a few from our own valley. Despite the constant threat of development, many of the signs illustrated still exist.
Neon lights are a type of cold cathode gas-discharge light. A neon tube is a sealed glass tube with a metal electrode at each end, filled with one of a number of gases at low pressure. A high potential of several thousand volts applied to the electrodes ionizes the gas in the tube, causing it to emit colored light.
As Americans took to the roads and routes into and over the Rocky Mountains (like the Rainbow Road – U.S. 50 over Monarch Pass – the first road constructed in the U.S. after World War I) so too, did neon signage
The display is artist Austin Baskett’s first exhibition. Over the past ten years, Baskett has traveled the state drawing these iconic relics to help preserve their beauty and to share their stories with others.
Baskett is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and moved to Colorado with his wife in 1993. They now split their time between Lafayette and here in Salida.
“We’ve owned our house in Salida since 2017, and remodeled it in 2021,” explains Baskett. “We had a good friend here and since we came to Colorado to live in 1993 we’ve always loved the valley. For us, it’s a combination of the natural beauty and the art scene.”
Baskett started his career in graphic design and has been an illustrator for 30 years. His career path took him into creative management, marketing, and operations in the beauty industry. Which could be considered a leap to becoming a featured artist at Denver International Airport. It began with neon.
His fascination with neon is what he calls “a character flaw — I just think they are cool. I studied graphic design and illustration in college as well as marketing, then a number of years ago I started to look at these old signs in a different way and to photograph them. I like how they combine architectural design and graphic design.”
One day after taking some photos of signs he had found, Baskett began to illustrate them. “It just kind of started. I probably have another 50 to 60 signs in my photo collection that I haven’t gotten to yet.”
The exhibit at DIA includes a few Salida neon signs and one from Gunnison, all of which are recognizable to us locals:
- The Victoria Bar (locally known as “the Vic”)
- The Westerner Motel (On U.S. 50)
- The Circle R Motel (On U.S. 50)
- The W Café (in Gunnison)
The signs, says Baskett, do take quite a bit of effort to create. “I estimate that it takes between 40 to 100 hours to illustrate each one,” he says, talking about his process. “When you commit to it it takes quite a bit of effort. I almost go into a meditative state — time disappears — I get into a solo-minded space.”
Asked about his favorite places to look for old neon signage, Baskett said that Colfax Avenue in Denver is full of old neon that he hasn’t had the chance to photograph yet. But there’s a catch to how and when he captures the photos that are the inspiration for his illustrations.
“I like to capture the signs with the right light on them and haven’t seen them [in that light] yet. I really like the Rabbit Ears Hotel sign on the way to Steamboat. It’s so beautiful. I want to get it with just the right light on it and that hasn’t happened yet.”
Basket says that the illustrations on display at DIA were done in his studio in Lafayette since he doesn’t have a studio in their house in Salida because when they are here, they spend a lot of time outdoors. But he is a member of the Salida Council for the Arts and adds that they’ve begun to talk about putting in some creative space here. “We’re at the end of our professional careers and we want to be a long-term part of this community.”
He chuckled and added that his first, 30-year career in graphic art was immediately beneficial to him. “The saying goes there are starving artists and not starving artists —– then you can get the not starving artists who are the ones sponsoring themselves. I can tell you being an illustrator helped my professional life. I could quickly illustrate an idea and gain buy-in.”
He says one of the most wonderful things about being a featured artist at DIA has been the people he has met because of the show. “I’ve met people here in Salida and other places I’d never met otherwise. It’s a fascinating experience.”
The exhibit will be on display until late June 2023.
For more information, visit: https://images.flydenver.com/Art-at-DIA/Temporary-Exhibits/The-Art-of-Old-Signs-Austin-Baskett/ or https://austinbaskett.com/
For those who fancy a road trip rather than a flight, or those flying in with a few days to explore, some of the best examples of historic neon lights in Colorado can be found in the Neon Alley in Pueblo, Colorado.