Signs of the times: Anna Newman’s handmade versions of Reno’s motel neon

Anna Newman has her finger on the pulse of a changing Reno. Her latest sculpture series consists of handmade tributes to the beloved old neon signs from demolished, downtown-adjacent motels that have come to serve in our public consciousness as symbols of the ongoing tensions around gentrification.

Newman’s versions of the motel signs are piñatas made from cardboard, cut tissue paper, and faux neon (actually LED ropes inside a silicone casing), suspended from the ceiling of UNR’s Student Galleries South. They are the same motel signs that are now in Glow Plaza on West Fourth Street.

Newman has always been into vintage aesthetics, whether she’s making soft-sculpture toys or short documentaries. (Her favorite is on the late, subversive toy maker Frank Kozik.)

She moved from the Bay Area to Reno in 2019 and is now a graduate student in the University of Nevada, Reno’s art department.

Anna Newman at the Glow Plaza on West Fourth Street, where reproductions of several downtown Reno motel signs—plus one original—are now located. Photo/Kris Vagner

The conversations in Reno about development and gentrification versus historical preservation have been going on for a while now. As someone who’s lived here for four years, what angle have you entered that conversation from? 

I grew up in the Central Valley, and when I moved to the Bay Area for college, I couldn’t believe what had happened to the agriculture. And this was in the ’80s. During my career in Silicon Valley, I’ve just watched agriculture and the more rural lifestyle be completely transformed. 

I started documenting it in my working-class neighborhood [in San Mateo County] in 2017. We didn’t have sidewalks, and it’s very post-war housing, and now it’s “tear down the housing—put up a two-story house that goes all the way to the property line and the maximum height allowed.” And there’s issues where the new houses block the sunlight from the traditional homes. So, that’s something I’ve been interested in for a really long time. And then when I came here—I suppose maybe I’m part of the problem—but I’m seeing it all happening again. It’s like déjà vu all over again.

My family has been coming to Reno off and on since I was a kid in the ’70s, and I just can’t believe how much it’s changed. And then to see these properties not only being torn down but not being replaced kind of mystifies me.

Anna Newman’s piñata sculpture version of the neon sign from the Donner Inn Motel. The motel was demolished in 2017. Photo/Kris Vagner

You’ve recreated in sculpture the specific signs that have been removed from motels and are now at the Glow Plaza at the Neon Line. 

Those signs are particularly interesting to me because a lot of them are not even the original signs. They’re reproductions of the original signs, which I don’t think people know, and I don’t think they’re encouraged to know. One of the faculty here told me that those signs remind her of heads on pikes, like trophies after you’ve vanquished some foe. But I did want to look at places that aren’t here anymore. Where there were extant signs or signs that had been reproduced, I used my photographs as the basis for the sculpture. And in the case where the sign wasn’t available to me, like City Center, I used historic postcards.

Anna Newman’s exhibition, “CONDEMNED,” is on view at the University of Nevda, Reno though Dec. 13. Photo/Kris Vagner

How did you decide to zero in on motel signs?

I am just really drawn to them. As a kid, we made a lot of road trips, and we stayed in a lot of this kind of motel in the ’70s. They weren’t yet as run down, but they were never super glamorous. Those are my memories, the things that I have happy associations with as a child. I also really appreciate them as objects of advertising and art. … I think mid-century design is really interesting. So, I selected ones that I thought were particularly beautiful. And also, if I happen to like some of the names—like the Donner Inn, because of the Donner Party, is also kind of apropos for things going awry.

I read your sculptures more as an elegy or a tribute than an effort to take a stance on development. There seems to be a lot of love and care in these.

I do have probably kind of an overly romantic association with them. I have a lot of nostalgia for them. I think, when places change, it’s very complex. Growing up in a rural environment without a lot of jobs—people need and want jobs, but with jobs come changes that people may or may not welcome. It’s very complex. … I talk to people, and they say, well, now I can go to Midtown, and before I didn’t feel comfortable going to Midtown. So even in something as simple as that, we see some of that push and pull. 

Who am I to say what should or shouldn’t be happening? But I guess, in my fantasy, more of them were conserved and turned into something interesting, whatever that might be.

Newman chose piñatas as a format because they are “sort of cheerful, seemingly sturdy, but very fragile.” Photo/Kris Vagner

How did you decide on the piñata format? Is it the temporariness of piñatas that you were interested in? 

That’s really what I was thinking about—how motel rooms, hotel rooms, rented rooms, wherever they are, they’re kind of in-between spaces. You have control of them, but you don’t have full control of them. They’re personal, but they might be generic. They’re private, but only to a degree. And I was also thinking about the motels themselves, how they appear sort of sturdy and stable and timeless and cheerful, but then they turn out to be really kind of fragile and easily erased. … There’s a piñata store in the neighborhood in California that I lived in for decades. And I was looking at photos and I saw the piñata, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s perfect” because the piñatas are also sort of cheerful, seemingly sturdy, but very fragile. 

I think they bring in an element of labor. … In hospitality, there’s this unseen labor going on all the time. And similarly, piñatas are often handmade—they take a lot of labor, but then they’re just destroyed. I kind of like that angle as well.