Austin Spotlight: Evan Voyles
Meet the maker that’s putting Austin up in lights
by Sofia Sokolove
Photographs by Matt Conant
It’s safe to say that our town would look a whole lot different without Evan Voyles in it. The rugged, long-haired 58-year-old sign-maker is the literal light behind some of Austin’ s most iconic restaurants, hotels and movie theaters. His retro, handmade neon signs have helped shape the identity of South Congress by flashing and shining outside of Maya Star, Uncommon Objects, Home Slice Pizza and many venues in between. In other parts of town, like at Justine’s, Voyles’ flickering work stands alone on an otherwise quiet East Austin street, setting the bluesy, late-night mood for the restaurant before you even step in. And the now nationally recognized colorful beacons directing us to Chuy’ s or the Alamo Drafthouse? Yep, that’ s Voyles’ handiwork, too. We caught up with the maker in his filled-to-the-brim studio on South First Street to learn about what fuels him, the stories behind his most iconic pieces and how a Yale English major becomes a famous neon sign artist.
Was there a defining moment when you decided to become a sign maker?
Everything in my life has been accidental. I was an English major in college [at Yale University], and I was interested in how the word looked on the page. But I also almost became an architect; I almost became a lawyer. I almost became an artist. I guess I did become an artist. But never with full intent. I started making (when I was supposed to be going to law school) a painting in the basement of my girlfriend’ s building that looked like a neon sign. I had no idea how neon signs were made, and I spent hours trying to get canvas to do what cheap metal does much more easily and much more quickly. It was only years later that I taught myself how to do it.
You were an antique dealer for a long time. Is that part of what sent you down this path?
I was driving on the backroads, constantly, mostly between Texas and California. It was March of 1989 in Orogrande, New Mexico, which is in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those desert junk shops where they just had stuff out in the sand, and there’s this sign lying there that says “LUNCH.” I kicked it because I knew from my experience there were probably things living in it, and it just skidded away from my boot, and I’m like ‘ oh my god —it’s light.’ And I [paid $20 and] picked it up and put it on the roof of the car. And in that moment I got infected. A month later, I’m buying huge things that I can’ t pick up. And it doesn’ t matter anymore because now I’m obsessed. I had to learn to take them apart in order to get them on and off the roof of the car.
And you were buying them just because you loved the way they looked? You weren’t yet thinking ‘I should make these.’
Exactly. At that point I was simply buying them because they were out there, they were available, they were cheap and they were totally cool. I had a little storefront in Buda, and I created my first neon jungle in the backyard. And we would hang them up, and light ’ em up, and we would have parties back there. So that’ s where I was between 1989 and 1994, that inventory was building, even while that wasn’ t my main line of work — I was well known for cowboy boots. And then one night it all burned down. I had already started making a few signs. But the night it burned down, I had nothing left but the signs. So I became a sign maker, full time, the next morning.
Wow, trial by fire. Literally.
I had nothing left but signs, so I waded in. And ever since then, I’ve gotten better. I’ve learned things by osmosis, partly by induction. And I’ ve tried always to hew to the idea that if I do it exactly like the old guys did it, it’ll last beyond my lifetime.
You share your studio with your wife, another maker, fashion designer Gail Chovan. How does that union shape your work?
When we first started going out, she was working for Tesoros Trading Company, and that was the first outdoor commercial sign I’d built. She inherited me as part of her duties, like ‘call the sign guy and find out why the thing’s not working.’ Our friendship was forged over us discussing my shortcomings … as a sign maker. Something we still do! The foundation of each of our works is strikingly similar.
I’m sure that leads to some really rich conversations about your art.
Our conversation is with each other, but it’s also with the street. With people on the street. And everything that informs people on the street, and everything that distracts people on the street. We’ re tying to be elegant, we’re trying to be subtle, we’re trying to be direct, we’re trying to blow their eyes out and yet not.’
You’ve made signs for some really impressive innovators — Tim League, Liz Lambert and Larry McGuire, to name a few. What’ s that like?
It just happens I’ ve got some really badass friends. Who knew that some of these ideas would take off? I like to joke about my class of 1996/1997: Chuy’ s, Stubb’ s BBQ, Alamo Drafthouse. Suddenly it’ s 20 years later and it’ s like, ‘ oh my god they’ re all millionaires … besides me.’ But I live the richest life of all of them, because I’ m part of all of that. I get to make cool stuff for cool people. I get to change the way my town looks.
And you get to help create senses of place that are so iconically Austin. How does it feel to see your own work, like the “ SOUL” sign at Hotel Saint Cecilia, shared all over social media?
I think that’s probably the most photographed sign — and it’ s not a sign, or it wasn’ t intended to be a sign — that I ever did. Kudos to Liz [Lambert] for recognizing it. I didn’ t know it would become redolent and iconic. Though you would think, ‘ How could you not see that, Evan, it’s SOUL in three foot, two-tone letters with triple stroke neon? Are you that dumb?’ And maybe I am. [Laughs] I just love this stuff, and I like making it, and to get to put it in front of people is amazing.
I feel like neon is having a moment.
To me, it’s not a moment. It never stopped. It’s not magic, but its roots are in magic, its roots are in alchemy. It’s simply the best way to write your will upon the night that has ever been invented, and nothing else has rivaled it yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Read more from the Makers + Industry Issue | July 2016