Impressions & Impact: An Inside Look Into Tennessee’s First Neon Program

Shelby Summar, 2023 Graduate

Over ten years ago, Cumberland University art professors, Damon MacNaught and Ted Rose, established the only neon elective course in the state of Tennessee. Now, Assistant Professor of Fine Arts and Cumberland alum, Joseph Bates, continues teaching the technical skills needed to produce this uncommon art form.

A 2023 Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate and President’s Award winner, Shelby Summar, spent her time before graduation honing her artistic abilities, specifically in oil paint and neon sculpture.

“With our program being the only one around that offers neon, I’ve been very privileged to have talented professors who take the time to teach, but also allow us to find our own under-standing of the process,” said Summar, who took her first class in neon in 2021 and admitted her fascination with the uniqueness of the art form has only grown since. “Dealing with glass can be very frustrating, but the end product is always worth it,” Summar shared.

With each of the five pieces she has created over the last two years, her expertise is put to the test throughout the tedious process of spinning a glass cylinder tube over an open flame while blowing air into one end of the glass to keep it from collapsing as she manipulates it into her vision.

Bates challenges his students beyond developing basic skills by incorporating other materials such as plaster, wood, and metal into their neon pieces. Summar showcased a design in her senior art exhibit this past spring of a plaster heart outlined by red neon entitled “Bray of my Heart,” a nod to American Poet, Sylvia Plath. 

“Shelby’s strong sense of turning literature into physical objects has transformed her into the amazing artist she is today,” said Bates. “Finding connectivity in artwork is what I push all my students to achieve, and she picked up that concept rather quickly.”

Throughout her gallery entitled “Anthology,” Summar composed various types of literature into her works to highlight the relationship between the two art forms. “I started out as an English major, but I realized that my passion for art was something I could pursue professionally with my degree. I held onto a passion for literature and through my senior show focused on ways to integrate art with literature,” she shared. “Each piece was my own visual narrative of a literary quote, short story, or author quote. Through various forms of media, I hope to strengthen the bond between the two.”

In the spring, Summar, along with other upper level art students, were charged with designing, planning, and painting a mural inspired by Earth Day on the playground of a local elementary school, Carroll Oakland.

“I designed the mural, and had a team of very talented painters to help bring it to life on the Eagles’ playground,” she said. “I was inspired by the landscape and wildflowers of Tennessee, and the unity of appreciating the world around us. It was an awesome way to see art involved in the community!”

“The plants and flowers surround the earth, in which they all work together in protecting and keeping our planet beautiful,” said Bates. “I am so proud of what our art community can do.”

In addition to this art community, Summar developed many kinds of friendships throughout her time at Cumberland.

“Cumberland is unique because it allows you to build community wherever you land. I built an awesome relationship with LCC staff because of my time spent in the Writing Center, I got to know the Admissions staff as a Presidential Ambassador, and our small yet mighty Art Department was so close because of our time spent together.”

“Cumberland is so special because of the community alone. With a smaller student body, we are able to create and foster relationships on a completely different level.”

Summar graduated summa cum laude in May as the recipient of the President’s Award, given to a graduate who embodies the ideals, principles, and spirit of Cumberland. She has been actively involved with Baptist Collegiate Ministries (BCM), as well as other leadership roles, working as a Writing Specialist in the Writing Center and a Presidential Ambassador.

Summar is pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching at Cumberland with plans to become an art educator while continuing towards the goal of seeing her art hang in more galleries.

News / Blog, Fine Arts, The Millard and J.J. Oakley School of Humanities, Education, and the Arts / Impressions & Impact: An Inside Look Into Tennessee’s First Neon Program