Marjorie Inman is an inherently restless person. She rides motorcycles, collects classic cars, frets over phone calls, and shapes her speech into aphorisms and one-liners (“It’s hard to sell neon in Milwaukee without a coupon”) while gesturing with a cigarette or refilling a coffee cup. But she has identified one thing, she says, that she has patience for: bending glass.
The process is deliberate and can’t be rushed. Inman first heats a tube of glass, then rotates it slowly over a broad “ribbon burner” that creates a little wall of fame. She makes it look easy, but the glass comes alive when it heats to the point of sagging, and she turns it further to tame the molten tube. Then she transfers the hot glass to a worktable, using a paper pattern to determine where to bend the glass before it can cool.
Spelling out “Come In! We’re Open!” can take a while, so she plays loud Alice Cooper and rockabilly from great big, brown bookshelf speakers stacked on top of the counter. The room is one-part workshop and one-part kitchen (with the kitchen in retreat), and the sink comes in handy to cool burns. Along with her boyfriend, Je Kelley, who puts the signs together after she bends the glass, Inman runs Electric Eye Neon, one of the last surviving neon shops in the city. They do repairs, build new signs and new art (with commissions starting at $400), and generally proselytize the beauty and durability of neon.
— Sponsored Video —
Her allies in the cause are other neon makers who live in Russia, Illinois, Alaska, Norway and Egypt. “We’re going to band together and conquer the LEDs,” she says.
Since the mid-1990s, Inman’s signs have appeared in the windows of restaurants, bars and drug stores, many of which no longer exist. She fashioned purple beacons for palm readers and bent glowing hair accents for a portrait of Marlon Brando. She made a caveman, a dancing couple and a devil-in-profile based on a drawing by one of her friends.
Her most dramatic creation might be the one, now in her living room, that once hung in a Third Ward restaurant and depicts a coffee cup with dragon claw reaching out of it. And her most unusual might be the broken beer sign a man commissioned to have rebuilt to say “Jesus Saves.” Inman won’t even attempt to put a number on how many “We’re Open” signs she’s made, shaping the letters one bend at a time.
She learned her craft from former area neon-man Bill Buth after a “miserable” stint in computer repair, and Kelley spent many early years in construction. The couple have stayed busy in neon for roughly 35 years, 25 as owners of Electric Eye, and the generation to follow them hasn’t shown itself yet.
“I don’t know who is going to do this after us,” she says.