Neon Museum Boneyard: Week 182

Polaroid of the Las Vegas Club neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard, Las Vegas

I was with my color photo class the very first time I visited the Neon Boneyard. Even before it became a proper institution, a museum with a visitor’s center and a security guard, the Boneyard was something special.

As soon as my film was developed, I locked myself up in the photo lab. The color darkrooms were small individual rooms along a short dark corridor and they had a vinegary smell. It might not have been practical to study film in a digital age, but it felt more meaningful. My film was a tangible object that captured the jagged glass, the rusted metal, the heart and soul of Sin City history.

Polaroid of the Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

“Neon lighting took on a particular resonance in Las Vegas and in other parts of the open landscape of the Southwest. Without many trees or buildings, the illuminated neon sign could be seen from miles away in the evening. Western motels used the neon medium perhaps more than any other business. This was also perhaps afforded by the low profile of casino and motel buildings when casinos within Las Vegas’ city limits were once limited to two stories. The low, horizontal profile has allowed building-mounted signs to be seen at longer distances. Traveling north on the Strip, the neon glow of Las Vegas acted as a beacon signaling toward the city.”(Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon).

Polaroid of the Lido neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

Within the last two years, the neon collection has been split into two different yards- the North Gallery is for commercial shoots and weddings while the Neon Museum Boneyard is available for public tours. One of the most exciting new additions to the facility, which was still in the process of relocation the last time I was in town, is the visitor center. The clam-shaped lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, was salvaged from the demolition of the La Concha Hotel in 2005.

Polaroid of the Stardust neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

The Neon Museum Boneyard is a testimony to the ebb and flow of Vegas culture. From the atomic font of the 50s to the kid-friendly themed signage of the 90s, the history of this desert valley is written in neon. Hotels might come and go, the wedding chapel vows too, but the Boneyard will still be around fifty years from now to document the changing city. At least, that’s what I would bet on.

Polaroid of wedding neon sign. Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

How to get to the Neon Museum Boneyard: 770 Las Vegas Blvd North

Nevada Test Site Tour: Week 181

Operation Teapot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Teapot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

You should have seen the food back then. Only $2.50!

Steak and lobster $5.00!

Then- imagine- 10,000 people,

It was a block party!

Area 23

Every month, the DOE Nevada Field Office runs a free tour of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site).

John, one of the retired employees chaperoning the tour, narrates with a touch of a Southern drawl. Over the PA system he covers both the history of the site and whether or not the camera battery is charged. “I just wait while this thing spools up,” John mumbles into the microphone. Dario, the other guide, stands up when he has something to add to the conversation.

The isolated outpost of Mercury once had a bustling hobby club, swimming pool, church, movie theater, eight-lane bowling alley, and tennis court. That was before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1992. Now, the only sign of life at the gateway to the Nevada Test Site are the two stationed guards and the woman behind the canteen cash register. She has long black hair and curled bangs.

Whenever a bomb was being detonated, all unessential personnel were sent to Mercury. Of course not everyone had been as excited as John and Dario about the nuclear test block parties. During the heyday in the 80s, the entrance to the Nevada Test Site was often filled with protesters. If they crossed onto government property they were put in a chain link pen with a port-a-potty until the police took them to Beatty for processing.

From where those protesters sat, they would have seen a nondescript desert landscape in every direction. They knew better though. Just beyond the rolling hills, where Area 23 transitions into Area 5, is a closed basin– an innocuous name for land with a water system that does not drain into another body of water and has high levels of evaporation. It is an ideal location for ensuring the quality of nuclear weapons.

Damaged Vehicles - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Damaged Vehicles – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Complex

Overlooking Area 5 is a series of benches where press and dignitaries once observed the atmospheric tests on Frenchman Flat. The warped and twisted wood planks are surrounded by green brush and little yellow signs. Caution Radioactive Material.

Our first stop is at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. It is comprised of a few cream-colored metal buildings surrounding a covered picnic table. A few employees are having a fish fry in the shade with a retiring colleague. Our tour bus pulls up to allow the manager of the complex to board.

During his portion of the tour, Jon speaks about the complexity of plutonium. He tells us that transuranic waste has a higher atomic number than uranium. Bioturbation, remember this word, is the study of the disturbance of soil. That’s why we put a four foot cap of earth on the waste; insects won’t go deeper than that.

The land is divided into ‘cells’ and within those earthen graves the waste is carefully recorded by columns, rows and tiers. Contaminated dirt goes into large white ‘super sacks’ and cranes deposit the 72,000lb casks containing hot material. Cell 19 received some waste from Dayton, Ohio. “I feel close to home,” Jon jokes.

Aside from hazardous waste, the facility accepts classified military waste. It’s more affordable to bury the classified material than it is to shred it.

Building 6-902 Wet N’ Wild

“I’ll let Dario tell you about that because I gotta call Brenda.”

Dario wears aviator glasses and a baseball cap with a roadrunner on it. He began his career at the test site in 1988 as a water engineer.

During the construction of Building 6-902, Dario had ordered a hydrostatic test on an important 12” pipeline. Some obvious part was overlooked, which makes the guys sitting next to me groan in disbelief, and 300,000 gallons of water flooded the facility.

“I wasn’t the one who forgot it,” Dario claims, but he has never lived it down. The nickname is printed on the tour itinerary. As the bus rolls past Wet N’ Wild, I see an antelope’s white bottom running through a field of lush scrub. It had rained a lot more than normal in the area.

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 7 Icecap Ground Zero

The white corrugated emplacement tower is 152ft high and has a sign affixed to the front door that says no classified discussions in this building. Thick diagnostic cables snake out the back of the tower, through the desert, and into recording trailers encased within shock-absorbing aluminum honey comb. These cables would have been lowered down the ‘event hole’ to capture information about the bomb’s performance.

Operation Icecap was in the works when the nuclear testing moratorium went into effect. Had the project been given the go ahead, the 500,000lb test package would have been chilled with dry ice to -42 degrees to simulate the temperature a missile system would encounter in outer space. Because the test was discontinued the site has remained as it would have been prior to a test, emplacement tower and all.

Yucca Flat runs along the western edge of Area 7. The dry lake bed has the dubious distinction of being one of the most popular locations for nuclear tests. Out of 928 total tests, 828 of those were underground and a significant portion of those took place on Yucca Flat. Ten miles away from the peach-colored lake bed was News Nob. People like Walter Cronkite stood there amongst the Joshua trees in anticipation of an atmospheric detonation.

Sedan Crater - Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Sedan Crater – Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Area 10 Operation Plowshare

On July 6, 1962 a hole was dug 635ft deep. A 104 kiloton thermonuclear device was inserted and, when detonated, displaced 12 million tons of dirt. The result was one of the largest man-made craters on Earth.

In an age of unlimited nuclear possibilities, Operation Plowshare was part of a larger concept introduced to the public by President Eisenhower. The concept, Atoms for Peace, was interested in the application of cheap nuclear energy for peaceful applications: excavating land, open pit mining, and dam construction. Surprisingly though, the most promising use for underground nuclear explosions was the stimulation of natural gas production. To this end, Operation Plowshare only ceased at the end of Fiscal Year 1975.

Today, Sedan Crater is fronted by a metal viewing platform and rimmed with small puffy bushes. This is the only site on the tour where the guides are allowed to take a group photograph, but they are not allowed to show the horizon.

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. "Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead."

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. “Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead.”

Area 1 Operation Cue

Just off in the distance, on Rainier Mesa, was a good café. At least it used to be really good.

“And,” John added, “it used to have a rec center.”

John pops a DVD of archival footage from Operation Cue into the stereo equipment. An attractive young woman named Joan Collin enters the footage with a purse on her arm and a patterned scarf loosely tied over her hair. “As a mother and housewife,” Joan assures us in that soothing Hollywood accent that went extinct in the 1950s, “I was particularly interested in the food test program.”

During the early hours of May 5th, 1955, Joan drank hot coffee on Media Hill while a small group of Civil Defense Volunteers jumped into a trench close to ground zero. They had thick, bulky jackets and hardhats. “As I watched the people eating,” Joan notes after the detonation, “I realized that mass feeding would be an important job for civil defense.” The camera pans over a troop of dusty men preparing a feast made with ‘salvaged cans.’

“Don’t let me forget, Dario,” John says as he switches the PA back on, “to call Patricia to get the photos set up for us.”

Film still from Operation Cue Footage - Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Film still from Operation Cue Footage – Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

We drive into Area 1 along Yucca Flat and when we turn off the paved road the scent of dust drifts through the AC. Soon the bus is approaching a brown two story timber house. It is one of two structures still standing after the famously televised detonation of the Apple II bomb in 1955.

The structure is in relatively good condition, considering it was only 6,600 feet from ground zero. It has a red brick chimney, asphalt shingles on an undulating roof, and a reinforced concrete basement. Through the front door I see a white wood staircase and through an upstairs window I see Garfield spray painted on a wall. The tour bus slowly circles around the house. The gentle rocking has put Barret to sleep.

Although there are no more full-scale nuclear tests, the residual radiation from decades of testing makes Yucca Flat ideal for first responder training. The nearby Transportation Incident Exercise Site simulates nuclear terrorist attacks. Overturned cars, trains and shipping containers are strewn in front of a replicated Main Street. A jack rabbit hops past an airplane crash.

The Nevada National Security Site has a lot of scary associations, but those are carefully tucked away. What is visible looks as harmless as a neglected backyard with rusting cars on blocks.

I don’t know how John and Dario feel about the ethics of nuclear testing; they do a very good job of treading neutral ground. It must have been so thrillingly banal to work a 9-5 shift at a nuclear test site. I can see how easy it would have been to focus on just the science and forget the big picture.


Operation Ivy - Mike Shot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Ivy – Mike Shot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

In fact checking this article, I came across a name that was familiar but didn’t mean much to me: Operation Ivy. In 1952 President Eisenhower gave the green light to Operation Ivy. Two bombs were detonated under this program in the Marshall Islands. The first one, named Mike, was the world’s first hydrogen bomb. The yield for the device was 10.4 megatons.

When the dust settled and the ravaged landscape surveyed, Gordon Dean, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, sent Eisenhower a short message.

“The island of Elugeleb is missing!”

Humankind had just harnessed nuclear fusion, the same process that takes place in the sun. I can’t think of anything more sobering than that.

About: the Nevada National Security Site tour

About: NNSS Photo Library

About: NNSS Factsheets

Las Vegas: Week 77

While I sipped a designer cocktail, a naked couple shrouded in fog peered out from a row of columns. Their delicate movements were so mesmerizing that I almost forgot I was waiting for my friends. I’m sure that was the reaction the designers anticipated when creating a check-in lobby for the newest and arguably coolest addition to Las Vegas Boulevard. Everything about the Cosmopolitan oozed contemporary chic- from the mood lighting to the sensual video art to the figures on the restroom signs with their catwalk swagger.

The Cosmopolitan is owned by the art-crazy Deutsche Bank, which means there were a lot of great contemporary paintings and sculptures. However, what caught my eye the most were the Artomactics-vintage cigarette machines converted into miniature-art dispensers. It was such a novel idea and for $5 I became the owner of a handmade lino print.

The Strip wasn’t the only place that had changed. My friends had been developing their  careers and it was exciting to see them become ‘the people to watch’. The week I was there the Las Vegas Weekly published an article that included my friend Mikayla. Then the week after I left my friend Jen had an editorial about her burgeoning Fremont Street gallery- Kleven Contemporary.

Way across town, my friend Favi was preparing a mixed media exhibition inside his uncle’s convenience store- El Porvenir. It was located inside a sleepy strip mall with a largely hispanic clientele. The opening reception was approaching and not all of the artwork had been installed. That was normal though. Even in college Favi was the kind of guy who lived on short deadlines and massive amounts of work.

While I photographed the pinatas, Favi fielded interview questions from a journalist at the junction between the candy aisle and the refrigerated soft drinks.

As Favi described the artwork that was going to be ‘stocked’ on the shelves, he attached woodpecker stickers onto the crucified body of Jesus Christ. He might have felt anxious about running out of time, but it never showed. He had a carefree way about conducting business that made people like me look like nervous wrecks.

“Hey,” Favi turned round to Jen and I after the interview. “What did I say was going to be installed?”

Aside from careers, my friends were also purchasing homes. I am not sure yet if that makes me feel mature by proxy or immature because I haven’t made such an investment. Either way, while in town I got to enjoy Jen’s solid foundation for adulthood.

Her house was built in the 70s for whom I believe was an amateur pornographer with a thirst for fresh juice. Jen claims the previous owner was a solitary man with a missing leg, but I don’t see why both can’t be true. I mean legs just don’t fall off if you’re reading a book, right? Either way, the interior had been covered in mirrors. And if mirrors or wood paneling didn’t work for a cinematic backdrop then there were murals.There was a desert scene in the garage, a French pantry in the kitchen, a coastline silhouette in the garden, and a lobster shack behind the garage.

Now I knew the past owner had a penchant for wheat grass in between scenes because the kitchen counter had a built-in juicer motor. In case you were wondering about the attachments, they had their own custom storage shelf underneath. The cherry on top, however, was the large wooden carving in the front yard. It looked like Davy Crockett and had the Frontiers-y feel that every first time home owner needs.

Before I left for Las Vegas, I had read about a restaurant that intentionally makes the most unhealthy food in the US. It was the kind of place where people who weigh more than 350 lbs were rewarded with free meals. So when I learned that the infamous Heart Attack Grill had opened in Vegas I thought:

1. Of course.

2. I need to go.

Upon entering the restaurant a sullen ‘nurse’ gave us medical bracelets and hospital gowns. After we put them on, another nurse in a racy uniform led us to our table. It was a quiet afternoon and the place was mostly empty. The ‘doctor’ strolled back and forth behind the bar counter waiting for a drink order to come in.

“How are you doing?” Our waitress asked as she passed out menus.

“Good. I’m just glad we aren’t sitting by the window,” Jen replied while anxiously scanning the room. “I am embarrassed to be seen here. I work down the street.”

The waitress gave Jen a puzzled look but quickly bounced back into the role of the junk food seductress.

“Well, I think the fries are so much better cooked in lard. They have more flavor and they reheat really well.”

We ordered the Flatliner Fries and decided to try a Butter-fat Shake and a Single Bypass Burger. The shake was made with the equivalent of a stick of butter and arrived with an additional pat of butter on top. Aside from an extremely silky texture, it was so thick that you couldn’t drink it with a straw. I probably could have finished it if I hadn’t known how unhealthy it was.

The burger and fries arrived shortly thereafter. Jen and Favi decided the burger was good, but not good enough to risk their arteries or their dignity. On the other hand, we all agreed that the french fries were disgusting. Because they had been cooked in pure lard they were soft and tasted way too strongly of meat. Not even a good dollop of ketchup could mask the pork flavor.

I had convinced myself that the Heart Attack Grill would be a kitschy gem- something so bad it was good. Turns out I was wrong. It just feels sad to eat in a room with an industrial strength scale.

Despite the economic downturn, I was surprised and excited to see how well Vegas was looking. There was so much new development downtown- like the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, whose impossible shapes were designed by Frank Gehry. As Jen continued on with her architectural tour I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. It felt so natural to be cruising down the oven-baked asphalt streets again, a million hair dryers blowing in our faces. It was as if I had never left and that was the nicest feeling to have after two years abroad.

How to get to the –

Cosmopolitan: 3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, Nevada

Kleven Contemporary: 520 Fremont Street (NW corner of 6th & Fremont)

El Porvenir: 1610 E. Charleston Blvd., Suite – 140,Las Vegas, NV

Heart Attack Grill: 450 Fremont St, Las Vegas, Nevada

Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: 888 W. Bonneville Ave. Las Vegas, NV

Possum Costumes & Dumplings: Week 75

Recently, while at my parent’s house, I was stuck with the unenviable task of repacking mold-damaged boxes. I couldn’t complain because I wasn’t paying my parents to store my things, so instead I saw it as an opportunity. It was time to trim the excess and. while I was at it, take a little detour down memory lane.

French Painters:


  • avoided commissions, not sociable
  • credited w/ creating the fete galante
  • sense of fantasy w/ women in contemp. clothes & men in theater or 17th cent. outfits

When this little white note turned up I couldn’t remember why I had kept it; 17th century art history wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. Nevertheless, I flipped the page over and continued reading.

  • subjects do not engage the viewer   as   high   pa i y,  b ut  in   Frencoi  rt
  • U  o

Franqois Boucher

  • Men werenot perfect- some wa   grly
  • 18th 1800s in trone = were
  • v   e   ry       
  •              po

“Ah ha!” I chuckled to myself as I thought about the dark classroom with the tiered platforms and uncomfortable plastic chairs. If the furniture didn’t feel dated enough, there was always the dual slide projector. Its predictable kachook click was made, I am sure of it, to lull students into sleepy hazes from which they awoke with stiff necks and drool in their hands.

While art history wasn’t the most inspiring class, I still loved being in school and I was excited to be revisit that part of my life. My best friend Jen Kleven had opened a gallery since graduating and she was hosting a group show titled BFABYOBBBQRedo2012. It was a group exhibit showcasing one artwork from each person who graduated from our BFA program. My contribution was to be my first time back in an art circuit since leaving school and moving abroad.

After considering several differnt approaches, I had chosen the inspiration that had just fallen in my lap. Actually, it had been a breaking news update emailed around the office: children were dressing up possum corpses for a school fundraiser in Uruti, NZ. It was weird, it had panache, it was perfect. I couldn’t wait to get started.

While I was drawing Barret had been observing Ivy, our roommate from Shanghai, make a batch of dumplings. Her Chinese version was similar to Korean mandu, which happens to be one of Barret’s favorite foods. So it didn’t surprise me at all when he decided to take an afternoon off from work and to recreate a gluten-free version of his favorite snack.

When they came out from their steam bath they were soft and sticky and fragrant. I never pitied myself for not being able to eat dumplings, but maybe that’s because I didn’t know what I had been missing. They were delicious. I believe the term Ivy would have used was, “Oh my Godness!”

About BFABYOBBBQRedo2012: Kleven Contemporary

About divalicious dead possums in New Zealand: Uruti School Fundraiser

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