Drew Deane remembers the old motel in Ocala, Florida. “It was my great aunt’s motel. I visited it as a child and loved the neon sign, the people traveling and the sense of adventure,” she says. As it turns out, the motel, with its old-fashioned hand-built neon sign, proved to be the drive behind the vast catalog of Deane’s urban landscape art.
“I was painting landscapes and looking for something that felt more personal, more true to my heart. I was driving around Brevard one night and saw the Sunset Motel, which was very much like the one my great aunt had. The sign was on, glowing, the red against the snow. It was like an epiphany, that motel. It was the subject I just had to do.”
Deane’s paintings of old neon signs, begun in 2003, are intended to preserve a part of the American landscape that is fast disappearing. “I want to do something that is historically significant, that is important to me and to preserve a time in history when businesses were individual and not part of a chain. Each sign, cut out of metal and fabricated by hand, the hand bent neon, the way they were painted, is a natural piece of art in itself.”
Deane finds her source material — motels, bowling alleys, diners, offbeat mom-and-pop enterprises — on old business routes and two-lane highways long eclipsed by interstates. She’s taken two journeys down Route 66, a rich resource for a majority of her subjects.
“I look for signs from certain time periods, from the ’30s to the ’60s. I look for that particular kind of landscape, that type of sign, that type of business. Those from the ’30s and ’40s were designed with indigenous plants and landscape where they were located, like the cactus and cowboys in the West. In the ’50s, they were space age themed because America was trying to go the moon, so they had stars, space ships, rockets, arrows. In the ’60s, they became more red-carpet like, colonial looking with an upscale image.”
Once she discovers a sign, Deane takes a photograph and stores it on her computer. “I take pictures and I use my photographs for the reference for the light, time of day, and the image of the sign. Every month or so, I’ll go through my computer and pick some out. I pick one over the other depending on the composition I’m looking for. Right now, I’m doing long and narrow paintings, so I look for signs that can fill that type and size of panel.”
Deane paints exclusively in oil because she says it’s the medium that most faithfully allows her to create a specific sense of space, time and atmosphere. “I like the length of time it takes oil to dry. I can make all kinds of glazes and can blend the colors very well, especially for my skies. I want my paintings to be interesting, to look like there’s a real sense of light, especially in the sky, how it encompasses and interacts with the sign and light and shadow.”
What’s most important, she says, is readability. “I like my art to be happy and uplifting and interesting without a lot of heavy subjects that make statements. I like the fact that some of my paintings have a mystery of light and time of day, but beyond that, I’m not trying to make a really big point.
They’re pretty straightforward. There’s no hidden meaning in them. I like art in general to be happy and beautiful.”