Neon artist shines on stage

April 3, 2009 at 6:03 p.m.
Updated April 2, 2009 at 11:03 p.m.

Ben Livingston moved across the stage toward the microphone at Austin's seasoned Continental Club. He shouldered his Gretch guitar and began to sing.

But Livingston, a Victoria native, is known more for his neon art, having once won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship that he used to search for phosphors in Nepal.

That fellowship was more than 15 years ago. "Been dormant" all that time, he said, "meditating." How in the world did an internationally known neon artist get a stage at the Continental Club in the middle of the South by Southwest festival, where more than 1,500 bands were playing in Austin?

Helps to know the club's owner, Steve Wertheimer, who Livingston said is a good friend from way back.

"She got me to look a little deeper.," he sang in front of his band - the That's What She Said Boys - he'd assembled for his first art exhibit in all those years. The song was a dedication to the late Madeline O'Connor of Victoria, an accomplished artist who inspired and served as a mentor to Livingston.

All of the 11 original songs Livingston sang thematically connected to his life, his family, his experience and his love.

Livingston said he always wanted to sing and play in a band, so he rounded up some impressive musicians for the gig to present his original songs. The bass player was Bob Livingston (no relation), who once played with Jerry Jeff Walker.

On the walls of the club hung his latest neon works - all tying in to his songs. Vibrant colors emanated in the darkened club as Livingston played his life. One work titled, "Lucky Linda's 40th Orbit" was valued at $18,000.

Livingston said there were two reasons he all of a sudden sprang to life with his art:

"So I'm doing this (neon) demo and I notice a familiar looking woman in the audience looking at me . Then, a few minutes later during a break, she and her husband appear, both with a huge smile on their faces. She threw her arms around me as she exclaimed loudly, 'Look Bill. He is alive! I told you he wasn't dead!' I thought to myself, 'Jesus! I gotta get out more!'"

And Livingston shared his other reason for the long absence from exhibiting.

"I've been through some changes and ruminating on many levels about things, for reasons that I do and don't know much about," he said.

Livingston compared himself to a tree planted in fertile ground with the advent of spring and blossoming.

"This spring, I am in full bloom just for you," he said to the packed upstairs gallery of the Continental Club on South Congress Street.

Livingston belted out one song after another to the audience's delight. More than a neon artist, he proved he was a talented songwriter and musician.

Between his creative music, he told stories about the works of art on the wall and the people who inspired or commissioned the works. Storytelling, too, is one of his multiple talents.

One neon work was dedicated to his grandfather, MO Simon, who had a department store in downtown Victoria by that name.

Livingston also credited his mother, Polly Lou, Wilbur Collins, the late Simon Michael and others in Victoria for inspiring and influencing his development as an artist.

Although he lives in Austin and keeps a studio there, he said he fondly remembers his times in Victoria. Particularly, he remembered Madeline O'Connor for her keen vision.

".She was a searching vine married to the king. I once saw her reaching for heaven through the way that she looked at things," he sang from the song, "Fleming Prairie."

Livingston said he accomplished his immediate goal: "One thing led to another, and I found myself back in the glass shop, and despite my aching joints and crappy vision, I am creating the most interesting, intricate and beautiful work I have ever produced."

What's next? He will show his work at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York on June 11-13. The exhibit will be the Glass Art Society's 39th Annual Conference on local inspiration and global innovation.

And he said he's convinced he will continue working with the band in house concerts. Already, the first offer to present a concert has been made by Pebbles Wadsworth, former director of the Performing Arts Center at the University of Texas.

"He is a fabulous artist," Pebbles said.

Livingston said the band's focus would be "an entertaining and educational spin on heightening awareness of the spirit of creativity through art and music."



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