The Austin Chronicle

Through Steel, Wood, Glass, and Gas, Ion Art Turns Zilker Into a Glowing Wonderland

Enter the Neon Garden

By Wayne Alan Brenner, April 22, 2022, Arts

No one else could have done this.

No one else in Austin, at least, and likely no one else in Texas: supercharging the verdant acres of Zilker Botanical Garden for six nights with more than 100 fantastical works of neon art, works of technical and artistic creativity so huge (some of them) and so extraordinary (all of them) that the familiar place is transformed into a wonderland of illuminated, frequently kinetic, often interactive glass and gas and steel and wow.

That's the people of Ion Art. That's the husband-and-wife team of Greg and Sharon Keshishian, who started the Austin company in 1986 with the intent of creating and selling neon art, and who now employ around 40 people – artisans all, and deeply invested in bringing the company's varied visions into view – to make this city glow ever brighter.

"I started off doing stained glass before I did neon," says Sharon Keshishian, wisps of blonde hair flickering in the wind that blows across Ion Art's 6-acre South Austin compound. "I've always done art, and when I was doing stained glass, I started going to Houston, because I'd heard about some guys down there doing neon. And I started getting neon pieces made to go with my glasswork. And then Manuel's on Congress asked me, forever ago, if I could do some neon for their restaurant – and that was my first neon commercial piece."

Forever ago: before our quiet college town morphed into the sort of 24/7 tech-bro carnival it is today. But now, among the parts of Austin that remain worthy of our love: Who made that eye-catching sign for Stubb's BBQ on Red River? Ion Art. Who made those signs for Maudie's Tex-Mex, the Broken Spoke, El Chilito, Emmer & Rye, Stiles Switch, Oilcan Harry's, and (ahem) The Austin Chronicle? Ion Art. Who built that illuminated ACL guitar for the popular music fest? The rainbow cowboy for Art in Public Places at Ninth and Colorado? The immense Playboy rabbit head that galvanizes the darkest nights in the wilderness of Marfa? The polychrome, eminently climbable ATX in front of the Whole Foods flagship at Sixth and Lamar?

It was all Ion Art, but it wasn't just Sharon. "Greg does all the metalwork," she says. "Our talents really complement each other and, together, we can build anything."

"I do the mechanical stuff," confirms Greg Keshishian, smiling as he climbs onto a stationary bicycle that's attached to a gear that links to a chain that will rhythmically shift yards and yards of wood carved and painted to resemble layers of ocean waves. "Sharon's the main creative force and artist," he says, "and I'm kind of the nuts-and-bolts guy.

"But it's not just the two of us," added Greg, gesturing into the main warehouse that brims with arcane machinery and the artisans who use it. "We've been doing this for years, and we always have a ton of talented people working here." He begins pedaling; the wooden waves undulate in front of a cephalopod behemoth that's risen in full tentacular glory.

"I don't know if you know that old Baron Munchausen movie," says Sharon, "but they had that octopus stage with the waves that went back and forth? So I asked Greg if he thought we could build one for the installation at Zilker. And now," she gestures at the enormous contraption. "People can pedal it at the garden – and you'll be able to walk up on the stage for pictures!"

But that's perhaps not the most impressive thing you'll see at Zilker Botanical Garden when Ion Art's "Surreal Garden" is fully installed and open to the public on April 22. There'll be a trio of soaring, interactive pendulums, the top parts of which will be neon-chased to resemble stellar night-sky phenomena. "They have these big counterweights," says Greg, "so people can push them and they'll swing for a long time on their own. You won't see the stems of them at night – it'll look like meteorites going back and forth, and they'll be swinging over the dance cages."

The, um, dance cages?

Sharon nods. "They're usually full all night with people. A lot of folks wear costumes, it's a fun grownup party."

There's a Brobdingnagian sea monster, too, a glammed-up, light-enhanced anglerfish that's big enough to walk around inside of; the fish is rigged with smoke emitters and LEDs, a single good tooth gleaming from its rows of seemingly razorlike (but softly vinyl) dentition. There's a complexly arching Star Gate that will serve as entrance to the Primordial Forest. There's … a tall rotating pole with neon fireflies?

"All six of them flash on and off independently from one another," says Greg, adjusting one of the big insects' wings, "so it'll seem really realistic – like an actual flock of fireflies."

"A flock?" says Sharon, frowning. "I don't know if they're called a flock." The two artists grin.

But even this neon project – like any endeavor that requires planning and effort – is not all sweetness and light. "We have to rent some equipment to drive around in the garden," says Sharon. "Our regular crane can't fit in the space, so we need to get some smaller lift items. We'll have like five days to set everything up. Art Seen Alliance is doing all our staging – every year, they've been one of our biggest pro bono helpers. They'll set up the stage that we'll put the octopus on. And we'll have to bring everything in a certain order, so some of it doesn't block the others. The octopus has to be one of the first things in, but the sea monster, where he's going, we have to get some other things – like the Star Gate – in first. And the meteors and all the smaller, stand-alone pieces – we're still trying to figure out the logistics of it all."

But they'll figure it out in time for the garden-based celebration, you can be sure of that: Experience is, after all, one of the best teachers around. Ion Art staged their first such party in the vast parking lot outside their headquarters in 2017, which pulled in about 1,000 intrigued Austinites. By the time of their third, in 2019, the attendance had swelled to 4,000 and the space no longer seemed quite so vast.

"At that point we were overwhelmed," says Sharon. "But some people from Zilker Botanical Garden happened to be here, and they thought it'd be great for the garden. So we were gonna try to do it in 2020, and, well, you know what happened then. So this party's been put off for two years and we're all super excited that it's finally gonna happen."

Ion Art’s “Surreal Garden” at the Zilker Botanical Garden, 2220 Barton Springs Rd., April 21-23 & 28-30. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy. Tickets and info at
See photos from the exhibition at Zilker Park in our photo gallery.

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