Bending Glass

WORDS Marla Cantrell
IMAGES Jade Graves Photography

Jun 1, 2023 | Featured, People

“I know I’ve left a mark, and I’m so humbled by it. None of that would have happened without customers willing to let me do what I do.”
~ Derrick Maxey

When Derrick Maxey, owner of Maxey Signs & Neon in Fort Smith, was four years old, he drew a picture of a telephone. The likeness was so good it stayed on his parents’ refrigerator and was a point of pride in his household for years to come.

“That had to be the early 1980s,” Derrick said. “Maybe my parents were just pumping me up, but I do remember drawing this banana-looking rotary phone. That always stuck with me. In school, I did a lot more daydreaming and doodling than I did schoolwork. School just couldn’t hold my interest.”

Derrick said this as he was sitting in front of his glass-bending table for neon signs, a specialty of his. A wisp of fire visible behind him, its flickering flame part of the process that utilizes the same components it did one hundred years ago.

“I was a D student,” he said. “But I did like art, especially commercial art classes, and drafting, and something happened when I was in grade school in Fort Smith that never left me.”

That “something” was an economics fair that showed students how to buy a product, market it, then resell it for profit. “Buy low, sell high, that’s what I remember. That lesson changed my life. That, and later, realizing every business needs a sign.”

In high school – Derrick attended both Northside and Southside – he remembers itching to get on with his life. Which led him to Trophy Sportswear and Screen Print, after he graduated in 1993, where Derrick began learning everything he could about screen printing.

“The back of Landmark Signs, which was on Tenth Street, was what I saw every day when I left work for lunch. I’d walk out, see all this neon, and at some point, I realized I wasn’t going to college. But I wanted to be artistic.”

“By that time, computers and vinyl graphics were taking over, but I wanted to do the old stuff.” Derrick knew of a sign shop that also did hand lettering which intrigued him. “One guy brought me in for an interview. I still had earrings and a ponytail, and I never heard back.” But in the summer of 1995, Derrick’s luck changed. Barney Hector, owner of Landmark Signs, took a chance.

“In this business, most people either move on to a new job or start their own company. I was scared I wouldn’t get the job, but someone I knew said, ‘Tell ‘em you’re gonna be there forever.’ So, I walked over and said, ’I want to learn this, and I’ll be here forever. Like, I’m not going anywhere!’”

Derrick was hired on the spot. Which was good and bad. Because the summer of 1995 was a blistering one, and Derrick, slight of build, conveniently fit inside the still-under-construction neon sign for downtown’s Varsity Sports Grill.

“The Varsity sign was on a trailer, and I climbed inside of it. It was hot, hot, hot. We had these housings where the neon pokes into the wall. And the guy on the outside would stick his fingers through, and I’d know which ones to wire.”

That giant of neon, Barney Hector, is gone now, and Derrick has worked for himself since 2003. After Barney passed on, his widow, Patty, gave Derrick some of his equipment. He even has the old neon Landmark sign that Barney made in 1991.

Derrick doesn’t know where he’d be without Barney, who took a chance on a long-haired kid and gave him the job of a lifetime. At times, he sees his life following Barney’s lead. After Barney married Patty, he turned his attention to other art forms, like sculpting and painting. Derrick has fifty to sixty art ideas saved on his smartphone and he has an artist girlfriend, Tina Parker, who’s started helping him in his business, and introduced him to stained glass. He calls her a talented driving force, a woman he adores. Of course, the project he’s working on now involves neon andstained glass, but who can blame him? Derrick says he’s the only professional glass bender in town.

“I didn’t start bending glass until 2007.” (A glass bender heats and bends a straight stick of glass tubing, one meticulous bend at a time, to form words and shapes.) “It was actually Barney who called to tell me about a complete neon plant that was for sale in Oregon.”

Derrick flew to Oregon, bought the neon plant’s equipment, got it ready to ship, and came home. He also had a mentor, Jim Matchen, a glass bender in Tulsa, who made a world of difference in Derrick’s quest to learn. “Jim passed away at eighty-one, and bent glass until his dying day.”

Derrick stopped and said, “I love what I do, and I don’t feel like I’ve worked since I was nineteen. But I don’t live an artist’s life. I never had a formal art class. My therapist of thirteen years looked at me one day and said, ‘Do you feel artistic?’ And I was like, ’Well, yeah.’ ‘Do you realize the work you do is artistic?’ I said, ‘I guess.’ And he said, ‘People come to you because you do artistic work, and they respect what you do. It’s okay to say you’re an artist.’”

Arkansas artist Kat Wilson would agree. Derrick produced two “selfie chairs” with her. In Bentonville’s Art District, Derrick helped artist Dayton Castleman with an art installation of a neon arrow called The Three Feathers, seventy-feet tall. They used Milford Crane Service to get the massive arrow up. And then there’s the Bakery District at 70 South Seventh Street in Fort Smith, where Maxey Signs has installed many of the hand-lettered and neon signs, like the stunner at The Mill & Exchange. That sign was built the same way, with the same supports as it would have been in the 1940s. He’s also fond of Votaw Law’s neon, a sign Derrick can see from the sidewalk in front of Maxey Signs & Neon.

For someone who doesn’t live an artist’s life, Derrick is firmly planted and well respected in the local art community. He mentions the influx of art, the Fort Smith murals installed by The Unexpected Project, the artful towers his company was hired to re-touch in the Bakery District, the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, The Gallery on Garrison, and across the bridge, Arts on Main in Van Buren. And finally, the great work of 64.6 Downtown, a nonprofit committed to creating vibrant spaces in downtown Fort Smith. So many visionaries have looked at Fort Smith and seen its potential, Derrick said, including the Hannah and Griffin families, John McIntosh, and another of Derrick’s friends, Steve Clark. “Steve has a saying, ‘The Calvary’s not coming to save you.’” A bolder take on being the change you want to see in the world.

A few years ago, Derrick worked with an intern from artist Don Lee’s class at UA Fort Smith. Tien Pham wanted to create art using three-dimensional neon boxes, and the project was such a success they still stay in touch. Derrick often talks to a glass bender in Northwest Arkansas who’s just getting started and needs a place to bounce ideas. And he’s working on a weekend class for those who want a crash course in neon. There aren’t very many glass benders around, and Derrick wants the tradition to continue.

Derrick has figured out a lot about life, partly from living and partly from more than a decade with a therapist, someone he thinks every living, breathing person needs. “I don’t take my family and friends for granted. My job is to take care of my daughter, Madelyn, nurture my relationship with Tina, and take the reins of my life, enjoying how I make a living, enjoying the process of the work I do.”

When asked if it’s exhilarating to see his neon signs lit up across the night sky, signs of his accomplishments, signs of his good work, Derrick only shrugged. “This part of town would be pretty dark without me,” he said, a slow smile starting.

He then turned the conversation back to Barney, a man he repeatedly tried to thank for the life he helped him build, but Barney would always change the subject. It seems these giants of neon are as good at deflecting compliments as they are at radiating so much brilliant light.

Maxey Signs and Neon
115 North 9th Street, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Do South Magazine

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