Life in Neon
Sharon and Greg Keshishian of Ion Art, and their surreal career making art around Austin
by Abby Moore
Wherever you go in Austin, you are bound to see a trace of Sharon Keshishian. The president and CEO of Ion Art doesn’t just live her life in color. She lives it in neon.
Keshishian has been an artist for as long as she can remember, but never studied art formally. Pressured by her parents to “get a real job,” Keshishian studied forestry and wildlife biology at Stephen F. Austin State University. Despite her degree and her parents’ wishes, Keshishian pursued her passion: art. Fortunately, both functionality and success followed.
Keshishian began sculpting and glass blowing in Austin before designing neon art. The downtown Mexican restaurant, Manuel’s, was one of her first clients in the city. The notable red arches illuminating the restaurant’s windows were created by Keshishian. As she was approached with more projects, Keshishian decided to establish an official business, Ion Art, in 1986.
In the early years, Keshishian and her team worked 24 to 36 hour shifts without turning a profit. Current vice president Greg Keshishian waited tables while working for free at Ion Art, in exchange for one-third of the company. But Greg gained far more than a business deal.
In 1993, Sharon and Greg were married and by 1994 the two had their first daughter, followed two years later by another.
Greg, an army brat, was born in France and raised in Germany. “College was never my thing,” he said. He focused on trade work after moving to the United States in 1985 and gained mechanical skills that complemented Sharon’s artistic abilities. The combination of skills along with their relentless work ethic eventually brought them to holy grail of Austin businesses, Whole Foods.
The credibility gained from adding Whole Foods to their client list led to an influx of partnerships and projects: the ACL guitar that greets festival fans at Zilker Park each October, the yellow and gold signage indicating Kendra Scott in more than 80 storefronts across the country, the rainbow ATX statue on the corner of North Lamar and West Fifth Street, the funky font at Amy’s Ice Cream shops. These are just a few of the iconic pieces that Ion Art is credited with creating.
Sharon’s parents were proven wrong when their daughter began making money as an artist. Though grateful for her success, Sharon often wants to create without an agenda. “Sometimes you have to make art just to make it,” she says.
Beginning last year, those creative cravings were manifested in an annual interactive, neon art experience. Much like the rapid growth of Ion Art, these events are “surreal.”
When visiting the studio on Radam Lane, I got a sneak peak of this year’s Surreal Sea event, which took place on Nov. 17. Sketches and printed images of Jonah and the Whale, mermaids, and sea monsters invited me into Sharon’s creative process. Ornamental glass to adorn her Nautilus, massive anglerfish with RGB lighting as scales and shark go-go cages were being formed by glass, metal and hard-working hands.
The event followed last year’s Surreal Jungle, where attendees dressed in costume, formed a conga line around the parking lot and made enough commotion to incite noise complaints.
This year, Ion Art’s partners donated raw materials to contribute to builds, so tickets could be sold at the reasonable price of $15.
“We want the surreal experiences to be affordable, interactive and fun,” Sharon said. It is an alternative to the “expensive and snobby” gallery openings that often unfairly represent the art world. Instead, these artists make art for everyone.
Sharon and Greg are already toying with ideas for next year’s event. Themes of the Wild West or extraterrestrial are both on the table, but who knows what the creative couple will concoct. Either way, all are invited to leave the “real world” behind and enter into their technicolor world of surrealism.