Karen Chaka understands neon’s allure. A softly glowing blend of science and art, it’s kept her coming back to the craft for more than 30 years.
There’s something nostalgic about it, she says, while blowing air through a thin glass rod and bending it to and fro over a searing blue flame.
Neon is eye-catching, too. So much so that a handful of Chaka’s recent pieces, all hanging in bars and restaurants around Omaha, drew my attention during recent restaurant reviews.
Chaka, who runs Neon Jungle, is the artist behind the hot-pink swirls of neon in the window of Saddle Creek Breakfast Club. She also created the sign reminiscent of old-school Chinatown in the front window of Yoshitomo in Benson. The funky glowing red-and-blue neon in Kaitei, Benson’s neighborhood basement spot focused on Japanese bartending, is hers, too.
And it’s Chaka’s work that pulled in chef Paul Kulik when he was deciding on a window display for his Old Market wine bar and shop, Howard Street Wine Merchant. He said he looked at a few options, but neon, with its history in old diners and restaurants, seemed like a good fit.
Kulik said he wanted the wine shop to feel like a neighborhood spot straight out of the 1940s. Neon was a key ingredient in bodegas and cafes in Paris and New York during the period.
“There’s a richness to the color that no other light can mimic,” he said. “It just felt right.”
The Howard Street sign glows a soft orange-red in the shop’s front window, where the block letters “HSWM” float inside a circle of gold lettering. In an adjacent window, another neon sign reads “OPEN.”
Chaka, in her 50s now, has been making neon since she was in her 20s, when she went to school to learn the craft. She’s gone away from it at times — she moved to France, went to culinary school and led whitewater rafting tours, among other things — but always finds her way back to neon.
She works out of a small studio inside Signworks, off 47th and F Streets, where she makes new signs for businesses and private clients. She also restores old, broken pieces of neon, like one giant sign that reads “FOOD”; its owners plan to turn it into a glass-topped table. And, with Signworks, she’s worked on some of the city’s most iconic neon, including the La Casa sign on Leavenworth Street and the “Champagne on tap” sign inside the Homy Inn.
Chaka makes all of her signs by hand, some from her own drawings and some from customer-designed logos.
After she makes each curve above the flame, she places the bent tubes on sheets of paper, making sure the glass matches the design. Then she places a scratch on the tube to mark the spot of the next bend.
When the shape is finished, Chaka closes one end, vacuums out all the air inside, blasts out impurities, fills the tube with gas and seals it. Depending on the color of the finished neon, the gases vary. Neon makes pink, argon equals blue and helium makes yellow.
Eventually, she dips the back of finished neon signs in black paint, so spaces between the letters fade away once the piece is installed and lit.
Chase Thomsen, chef and owner at Saddle Creek Breakfast Club, said he knew right away that neon — specifically hot-pink neon, which he associated with retro diners — was going to be the upscale diner’s calling card. Chaka’s hot-pink neon hangs in their front window, with stacked striped letters reading “SCBC.”
“It’s become a big selfie spot for customers,” Thomsen said. “The amount of photos that are taken in front of this sign is unbelievable.”
What’s the allure?
“In my head, the hot-pink neon was one of the first things we knew we wanted to have in our restaurant,” he said. “There’s a real connection between diners and that neon.”