"Neon" Dave Johansen checks a glass tube while bending it over a flame in his neon light workshop in Portland. Johansen also uses his mouth, blowing air into the tube at the same time, maintaining pressure so the glass wont kink. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Most Maine artists only manage to pursue their art on a part-time basis. They must work day jobs, leagues away from their creative endeavours, to make ends meet. For them, art is relegated to nights and weekends, only.

A lucky few — make that a scant few — make a generous living selling their finished works to tourists and collectors. They’re usually very rich or very poor.

Still, a third category exists: Those who make art, and commerce, from the same set of creative art skills.

That’s where filmmakers Gabe Bornstein and Jay Brown can be found. In their latest passion project, they document another local artist who works in that same creative business model.

They call their new short film “The Neon Bender.” It’s all about “Neon” Dave Johansen, a Portland artist who bends electrified, gas-filled tubes by hand for a living, and for pleasure.

Working out of an office in Biddeford, known as The Rove Lab, Bornstein and Brown make a living creating music videos and short, promotional documentaries for the business community. But “The Neon Bender” is a total passion project with no commercial application. They made it as a stand-alone piece of art.

Likewise, Johansen makes custom, one-off neon signs and wall hangings for restaurants and offices. He shys away from generic “open” signs or anything you can order online, mass produced in China. That’s his day job.

After hours, you can find Johansen bending his own, impossibly intricate art pieces — exploring the countless forms and colors available with different gas, glass and powder combinations.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Q: What’s the difference between your commercial work and your art work? Which do you prefer?

Jay: I’d say it’s pretty comparable. Obviously, there are some commercial projects that aren’t as exciting as our passion projects, but I tend to get pretty invested mentally in what’s going on either way. It’s always satisfying to finish something, be it thrilling or not.

Gabe: It’s a different kind of satisfaction. In our commercial work we always aim to satisfy the client, whereas with passion projects we are ultimately our own clients. Passion projects really force us to critique our own work, rather than a client giving us their input. That always proves to be a pretty challenging but rewarding exercise.

Dave: I like commercial work in a whole other way. It has to do with how other people appreciate it and how much of an effect it has on them.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Q: Dave, in the video, you say you grew up in the country instead of a big city. So, why neon, with its Las Vegas-like associations?

Dave: I don’t care about signs, much. I like the light. I think it’s more about the connection to fire, campfires, fireplaces, wood stoves. Neon is urban fire.

Q: Is it hard to find the time or energy for your art after a long day of using the same creative muscles on a commercial job?

Gabe: Nope, and hopefully that day will never come.

Jay: Right now there’s a pretty solid balance between the two, even if it comes in waves. Sometimes it’s full-on busy work, other times it’s full-on creative. At this point it feels like one doesn’t overlap the other.

Dave: I would say I get more satisfaction from commercial work because it’s more in demand, it pays, and the recognition. But if that happened with art, then it would definitely switch.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Q: You guys had to squeeze this video in around your other jobs. Was that hard?

Jay: The total time elapsed, from when we started, was upwards of a year. That’s because everyone involved was on the passion project ride. Things had to happen at their own pace. Paid commercial gigs had to take priority, for everybody.

Gabe: Just filming was close to 12 or 20 hours — just an hour here and there.

Jay: With no deadline, we knew we could take as much time as we wanted. And, it was like our baby. We wanted it to be perfect. Often times, we’d sit down in the edit room, staring at one transition for an hour, trying to get it to feel right. You don’t have that luxury with commercial projects that need to be done in a week.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Q: Dave, do you ever get so busy you don’t have time for your own art?

Dave: Infinite growth or infinite expansion is not what I’m doing here. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit and there’s an artistic spirit — and I’m heavy on the artistic, light on the entrepreneurial. Big time.

Gabe: That’s a good way to describe it.

Dave: It’s not a money-making proposition here. I have more cred than money.

Q: So, what’s the ultimate goal for this, then?

Dave: If I had concrete goals, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into this. I’m just following the pretty lights.

This interview was edited for clarity.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.