An elderly visitor once compared the studio of Larry Albright to the Steinmetz Hall exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair where ten million volts of artificial lightning were generated in a spectacular fashion. Larry calls it a “junk yard.” Whatever it may look like, the studio is a place where many transformations into exciting and beautiful electric works of art have occurred over the years.
Technology has always been a lure to Larry. Even as a child he remembers playing with a “quack medical thing” belonging to his grandmother that was an ultraviolet ray machine. He would pull it out of the closet and be enchanted with the little sparks. The knob of his grandmother’s Zenith radio also enthralled him and he would turn it for hours.
“I probably drove her nuts,” he says.
Radios continued to interest Larry and he studied speech and electronics in college.
“I was going to be an announcer or fix them,” he says. Today, old radio cabinets used in his studio are a reminder of this attraction.
In 1959, the Navy sent Larry, from Wichita, Kansas, to California. After his stint, he found a rental for $75 in Venice and an electronics job at Hughes.
A combination of events in Larry’s life made him decide to go out on his own. He started creating mainly sculptures and whimsical toys in stainless steel. “I was very pure,” he says.
Always one to go a little further, he figured out a technique using gas for welding stainless steel with a hand torch without the need for elaborate equipment, while the sculptures, themselves, became more complex.
Larry can’t remember exactly why he got interested in neon.
“The glass and everything was kind of neat,” he says. His electronics background and scientific and technical skills provided the basics but it took a lot of experimentation, research and development to get the right results.
Initially there weren’t many people using neon as an art form. There wasn’t a school where an artist could learn about this unique craft and Larry was self-taught.
“I wanted to play with it, push it, see what I could do with it,” he says.
In the 1980s, Larry was one of the first to make plasma globes, which became very popular, and between him and an artist on the East Coast, thousands were sold across the country. He had previously used the plasma effect in his sculptures.
Entertainer Michael Jackson was a plasma globe customer. Larry says Jackson also commissioned him to create a costume with electroluminescent panels (plastic that lights up in the front, using batteries in the back).
“It was almost used on the Thriller album but it didn’t photograph well,” he says.
Along the way Larry met people who worked behind the scenes on movies and this set up a whole new chapter in his career. Those who have seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind may remember the mother ship. Larry was called in to help with a camera exposure problem and provided the solution with neon light. That was his “first encounter” of many.
Sometimes special effects are needed not to produce an image but to make one disappear. Blue neon is used for this. In Star Wars you saw a spaceship flying across the screen. In reality the object was mounted on a base which can’t be seen on the screen. Larry wielded his magic to make it disappear.
In the movie One From the Heart, Larry did some experimenting and created two-millimeter (nearly as thin as pencil lead) pieces of neon that were used for a Las Vegas scene. The big signs were only 24 inches tall.
“It wasn’t a very successful film but the visuals were very nice,” he says. “It was successful for me.”
Now semi-retired, Larry is getting ready for the Venice Art Walk Sunday, May 18th. He figures it’s about his 20th year of participation. His studio is a magical place to be. When the lights are turned off and the neon colors shine brightly throughout.
In addition to being forced to clean his studio, Larry enjoys the art walk because it seems like almost every year someone shows up from his past.
There are other reasons for artists to open their studios. The proceeds of the Venice Art Walk, now in its 29th year, benefit the Venice Family Clinic, which provides free quality healthcare to people in need, serving as a safety net for the healthcare system on the Westside of Los Angeles.
In 2007, nearly 22,000 patients visited the clinic in almost 117,000 visits — an average of 400 appointments a day. There continues to be a great need to treat more patients and the clinic is always looking for ways to expand services, reach more people in need and stretch resources even further.
The proceeds from the Art Walk are one way of attaining these goals.
One way to support the clinic is by participating in the tour of 50-plus artists’ studios and bid on more than 400 original works of art, including paintings, sculpture, graphics, photography, cartoons and furniture provided by Los Angeles area and Venice Art Walk artists. Information, www .veniceartwalk.info or (310) 392-9255.