On September 19th, eight days after the unforgettable September 11th, while I was working at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain on one of my neon sculptures, Kenny Shearer, a young farmer who owns property next to Pine Hill Orchards, stopped by and we began to talk about the terrible events of the 11th.
Being a native New Yorker, and having had my neon gallery near Ground Zero, I was feeling terrible, and I told Kenny how bad I was feeling. He said he was thinking of erecting an American flag on his property. I thought it sounded great. Then he said, "What if it was done in neon?"
Wow! The thought of an American flag on top of a hill, created in neon, surrounded by cows, began to flow through my head. How great it would look.
"Sounds great!" I replied. And so the idea began to take form.
Kenny said we'd need to get permission from the Selectmen, and he'd take care of that.
We missed the first Selectmen's meeting. When they heard the idea 2 weeks later, they gave Kenny their immediate blessing. They said he would need a building permit, and that took another week. In the meantime, Kenny made a drawing of the flag to scale. When I saw the size it was to be, I was surprised. I had no idea that he was thinking of doing something so large. It was to be 28' wide and 16' high. Imagine that! And I was going to get to do it all in neon.
I knew the only way to pay for the flag was to have a fund-raising campaign. That became my job. It was to be kicked off on the Sunday of Columbus Day Weekend at Pine Hill Orchard.
The word spread quickly about the flag through our local Franklin County newspaper, the Recorder. Then local radio stations began to call up to interview me about it.
The next thing I knew, Bob Paquette, from NPR called. I told him about the fund-raising event. And lots of people came. But somehow, they all thought that we were dedicating the flag that night. Even photographers showed up to see its first illumination. I had to tell the people when they got there that we needed to raise funding first, before they would see the installation of our American flag in neon. Everyone was understanding that cold Sunday night. We sang the "Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America". We raised $850 that night, and added that to the $240 I raised two weeks earlier at our Colrain Fair selling my Italian sausage and pepper sandwiches.
On the day of the Colrain Fair, in 45 minutes I sold 15 pounds of the best Italian link sausages (better than New York) that came from The Community Store in Jacksonville, Vermont. I could have sold maybe 30 pounds more. The sausages were good, but the cause was better. My sign read, "Help raise the Flag in Colrain."
The day after the event at Pine Hill, Kenny told me about the site he and his wife, Cindy, picked out. It was on a hilltop on the Colrain-Shelburne Road at the entrance to Colrain. ("Only an apple's drop from Pine Hill Orchards.") When he took me there, I agreed, it was the perfect location for the flag.
The hill was so steep I could hardly catch my breath when I got to the top. I didn't know until then that Kenny had begun construction on October 2nd, and the first beams were in place. The view from the site was fantastic. Mountain after mountain covered with fall foliage--colors like you've never seen. Every shade of red, orange and gold, mixed with the pines in blues and greens. You could even see Poet's Seat Tower in Greenfield.
Each day I returned to the site and photographed the progress. After several days of climbing the hill (over 1000' feet straight up, with a little bend here and there) I thought it would be easier to drive my 4-wheel drive Toyota pick-up to see the progress.
I was so impressed to see how quickly the structure took shape, knowing that Kenny's day began at 5:30am, and that he had to milk cows, and everything else a farmer does, before he could even get to the site. Some days his father Larry, his brother, and other people would work with him. But most of the time, I would find him there working alone.
In the meantime, I had ordered all the neon from my studio in Brooklyn. I called up Rita Ramsook, who now runs it, and gave her the dimensions of the neon tubes. I was dreading the day when I would have to go to New York to pick them up, knowing what had taken place since I was there last.
I had decided to go on a Monday. As I was coming into Brooklyn on the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, I caught a glimpse of the skyline of Manhattan. It was always my favorite view of the city. Somehow I couldn't get myself to look to the right. I knew what was going to happen when I did. And it happened. I couldn't help myself. I couldn't stop crying when I turned my head to the right. It was terrible to see what wasn't there. It was the toughest part of the whole trip. I still think of it today.
There was a certain air about being in the city. People were tense, flags were flying all over, there were even purple ribbons tied around trees, gates, poles. You couldn't help but know that something terrible had happened. But I kept telling myself that I was on a mission--to bring the neon back to Colrain. And create something beautiful that everyone could be proud of. So I was returning the same day with over 350 feet of neon tubing--ruby red, white and bromo blue--nine 1500 volt neon transformers and transformer boxes, 300 transformer posts, and two boxes of high tension wire. All this plus U_S_A in red, white and blue neon letters thirty inches high, which I was bringing back for someone else. It was all packed in my little pick-up, layer upon layer.
As I approached the Throgs Neck Bridge coming home, and saw all the police cars at the entrance pulling cars and trucks over, checking them out, I became afraid that I would be stopped. If anyone looked like a terrorist, it had to be me. Metal transformer boxes on my passenger seat, and 350 feet of powdered neon tubes in the back. What would I do if they stopped me and searched the truck? How would I explain what I was carrying and what it was for? And my biggest concern was how was I going to repack it? I held my breath as I approached, and they let me go right through. What a relief!
I drove no faster than 50 mph coming home, fearful that some of the neon might break. I didn't even dare to look at the contents that night. I parked my truck in the empty cornfield across from my house, and decided to check it all out in the morning. When I looked, it was fine. All of it. Not one tube broken. Since the construction was not yet complete, I stored the neon in the choir loft of our restaurant, Green Emporium.
The day after, I couldn't wait to go back to see what was happening. I saw that Kenny had cut out all the stars on the panel and put it in place on the flag. When the sun went behind them, I could just imagine how great it was going to look when they were illuminated. Then I got an even better picture when he painted the blue square around them. It really came to life when he painted the red and white stripes. Finally, it was my turn to put the neon on.
We needed an electrician to finish the job. Kenny told me about Eric, who lives across the road from him, and wanted to help out with the project. He wanted to contribute his time. Neither of us knew each other. On October 28th, we met at the bottom of the hill, and he took me up on his little four-wheeler. We walked around and discussed the project. Since I had never done an American flag before, I was concerned about how the neon was going to look on it. I had decided not to use neon for the stars, but to create them using an illuminated box. My concern was how far behind the stars we should place the fixtures, and how many we'd need. And would one band of neon going across the center of each stripe be enough to make it stand out. I immediately knew Eric was the right person for me to be working with. I didn't know all the answers, and neither did he. We agreed to proceed on a trial and error basis, and started to share ideas. It was always a pleasure working with him. He made the electrical part of the project go smoothly, and his contributions were always worthwhile.
My assistant, Scott Hoffman, helped with the installation of the neon. We brought the neon up in my pick-up, a little at a time. Kenny set up a table for us behind the flag, where I sorted out the different color tubes, arranging them in groups and sizes. Scott climbed up to the top of the scaffolding and I handed him the tubes as needed. I had made up my mind that I wouldn't go to the top to do the job myself, since I had fallen off a ladder a year ago and broken my wrist. Scott made it look so easy as he climbed to the top.
I taught Scott how to work with neon over six years ago, and he's the only person I have found in this area that I feel very comfortable working with. He is an artist himself, quick to learn and contribute ideas. He made the whole thing go very smoothly. We started on Tuesday, November 7, and we finished up early on the 9th. Eric finished the electrical work on the 17th, and everything was in place except the power.
At one point, we thought we would have to light it with a generator. What a job that would be. Every night having to go up that hill and turn the generator on, never mind fueling it. But WMECO, graciously worked with us and agreed to give us power for the flag, telling us that we needed to dig our own trench from the bottom of the hill to the flag. They dropped off the pole at the bottom of the hill, and Kenny and his assistant dug the huge hole and put it up. Now, even the trench has been dug.
On Sunday morning, November 18th, I went up alone to the site to take some more progress pictures. I found Eric finishing up a few odds and ends. I was surprised to see a generator there. Eric said that Kenny had brought it up, and that he planned to test-light the flag when it got dark that night. Eric said that he would light it at 7, right after he had dinner. I couldn't wait to see what it would look like.
The day seemed to drag on and on. As I drove to the site, I was very nervous and filled with anticipation. Would it work? What's it going to look like? Is there enough neon on it? I had done the best I could. And this was the moment of truth. As I got closer, I started to see this glow. I was shocked to see that it was on! I saw crowds of people and parked cars at the bottom of the hill; what were they doing there? I thought this was a test run just for the three of us, so we'd know if it worked before anyone saw it. The scaffolding was still up.
Then I saw it. It was fabulous. I was filled with joy. And still am. It works.
The early Colrain residents were proud to be the first town to fly the American flag over their tiny schoolhouse. Now, it is with great renewed American pride and honor, that we offer this landmark, "Glowing Glory", from the small town of Colrain to America.
Footnote: The official lighting of this permanent neon installation took place Sunday, November 25th, at 4:30 to a crowd of over 1,000 Franklin County residents; our local Veterans, and Veterans of Shelburne Falls, and Boy Scout Troop 121.
It was dedicated by State Senator Stan Rosenberg, present was State Representative John Merrigan, and soon to be State Representative, Shawn Kelly.
Posted: to Neon Artist News on Fri, Sep 8, 2017
Updated: Fri, Sep 8, 2017