From the Drexel Marquee to the Dispatch Sign Downtown, Mike Bowersmith is Making Columbus Glow
In a world of LED lights, Mike Bowersmith is one of Columbus' last neon artists.
If you’ve ever marveled at the glow of neon against a night sky in Columbus, odds are good you were admiring Mike Bowersmith’s handiwork. For nearly 45 years, Bowersmith has been “bending” neon, twisting glass into the intricate shapes that have become some of Columbus’ most iconic nighttime views.
The Garden theater marquee in the Short North? He fixed it. The Columbus Dispatch sign atop a Downtown building? He fixed that, too. The Budweiser sign visible from I-71 north of the city? That’s his. He’s worked on diner signs—the former TeeJaye’s in Clintonville, Michael’s Goody Boy in the Short North. The Drexel marquee in Bexley. The sign for 92.3 WCOL’s Woody and the Wake-Up Call. The Local Cantina signs.
“I can’t drive around Columbus without seeing a dozen signs I’ve worked on,” he says. “Some of them, yeah, I guess they can be pretty iconic.”
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In a world of LED signs, neon stands out. That wasn’t always the case: Once, almost every illuminated sign was made of neon. When Bowersmith started, he worked in a corporate neon sign shop in New Jersey, churning out thousands of the same signs for national brands, including Iams, Pepsi and Champion. When he came home to Central Ohio, he made signs for restaurants, including Wendy’s and Tim Hortons. Now, most of those signs are lit with LED bulbs.
“It is kind of a dying art, and I’m sad to see that,” Bowersmith says.
Bowersmith grew up in Marysville, and still lives there. In high school, he loved art. “I’ve been able to draw anything since I was a little kid,” he says. He got into glass sculpture because he was mesmerized by fire’s ability to mold glass into shapes.
His father recognized his son’s ability. One day, while out buying lottery tickets, Bowersmith and his father ran into one of his dad’s friends. The friend “bent neon” for a living—the term neon artists use for their work. The friend offered to show Bowersmith what he did. Almost immediately, Bowersmith was hooked.
“I wasn’t looking for a job; I was selling little glass sculptures at county fairs,” he says. “But a couple months later, a position opened in the neon shop, and I was like, ‘I’ll take it.’”
More than four decades later, Bowersmith is one of the region’s few remaining neon artists.
He works from a shop in Valleyview, surrounded by glass and fire. The glass comes to him in long tubes, which he holds to flames before twisting them expertly into words and shapes. Neon lights aren’t usually entirely neon. Instead, the glass tubes Bowersmith bends are filled with a mix of neon and argon. The exact mix depends on the color he’s going for. Straight neon glows a bright orange-red. Argon is blue. The final color comes from a mix of the two gases, plus pigment inside the glass.
For Bowersmith, it is an art form that has also helped him grow. “The one thing this takes is patience,” he says. “You have to be a fairly patient person, because you break a lot of glass. But the important thing to learn is that there’s always another piece of glass. And eventually, you get into a routine, and it becomes second nature.”
This story is from the December 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.