Neon artist Tim Leonard (left), owner of The Machine Shop arcade in Langley, spent much of the pandemic making art pieces and teaching the craft to his daughter Sage Leonard. The neon art is on display at the arcade through June. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Neon artist Tim Leonard (left), owner of The Machine Shop arcade in Langley, spent much of the pandemic making art pieces and teaching the craft to his daughter Sage Leonard. The neon art is on display at the arcade through June. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A neon blast of bubbles, stars and diamonds light up Whidbey

The new exhibit at the Langley arcade is a selfie museum of electric art. Stick around and play pinball.

LANGLEY — There are no two glows alike.

The 40 stars, bubbles and diamonds are like neon snowflakes lighting up a gallery at The Machine Shop.

What’s up with that?

The neon art show is like an Instagram selfie museum, as is the rest of the building that houses Tim Leonard’s arcade with 90 vintage pinball and video games that operate on quarters.

The exhibit created by Leonard and two teammates will be on display through June. No quarters required to enter.

You can take home a 25-inch red neon bubble for $2,800. (Or 11,200 quarters.)

“The biggest question I get asked is, ‘How long do they last?’” Leonard said. “They are good to go for years. If they are going to fail, they are going to fail in the very beginning.”

He designed the shapes and bent the glass.

“Bent by hand, just like the old days,” Leonard said. “Each one has its own texture, its own paint color. Some are rusted, some are etched galvanized. They have different colors of tube and their own serial number.”

The exhibit was part of the reopening of the arcade in April after being closed over a year due to the pandemic.

It led to a new side business, Heavy Light Works, that specializes in electric art.

Leonard, 50, a custom metal fabricator by trade, also owns Heavy Metal Works. He started doing neon art in his metal workshop while recovering from a neck injury when a tree limb fell on the family’s car in 2011. He was unable to work and grieving over his 9-year-old daughter, nicknamed “Zippy,” who didn’t survive the impact.

“After I got back from the hospital I was sitting in my chair and it popped in my head. When I was growing up I always loved neon and the sculptural element of metalwork,” he said. “The Vegas neon is always a big influence, that ‘50s atomic age. It’s electrified with animation and movement.”

His 9-foot neon retro “Langley Motel” creation near the entrance to Langley is the town’s unofficial welcome sign, lit in red, green and blue, topped with a star. Smaller neon signs illuminate Sprinklz Ice Cream Parlor and several downtown shops.

Making neon signs led to restoring old pinball machines, another longtime passion for Leonard. He needed a place to put the games, so he rented the green building at 630 Second St., next to another coin-fed venue, All Washed Up Laundromat. He called it The Machine Shop and in 2016 opened the doors for people to come in to play as he continued to add to his collection.

“I started out with 12 pinball machines and five arcade games,” he said.

He kept adding and people kept coming. He put in a snack bar and a virtual reality room. Just look for the neon “Arcade” sign in front.

Inside are neon works such as “BOOM!” and “Be AmaZing” signs. The capital Z is a tribute to Zippy, as is the arcade. She shared his love of video games.

His older daughter Sage, 28, joined him making the neon pieces in the new exhibit, also inspired by Zippy.

“She has been our reason for everything we do, to follow our dreams and light up the world, filling the void that she left,” Sage said.

Sage attended art school in San Francisco and worked in restaurant management. She grew up hanging around her dad’s workshop and had done small projects but never of this scope.

“It was a super enriching experience to work together. We’ve known each other for so many years,” she said. “I learned so much from him.”

Sage Leonard assembles a neon art piece for an exhibit. She was taught by her dad, Tim Leonard. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Sage Leonard assembles a neon art piece for an exhibit. She was taught by her dad, Tim Leonard. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The crew included a seemingly unlikely intern, Adam Gates, 43, an Air Force instructor for SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.

“He used a program that helps military folks retiring to try something new,” Leonard said. “He emailed me and I said, ‘Yeah, whatever. It sounds too good to be true.’”

It meant free labor for Leonard. The Department of Defense SkillBridge program foots the bill for people leaving military service to transition into a career.

Gates and his wife, also retiring from the Air Force, bought a home in Langley to raise their three children.

“I’ve been doing woodwork my whole life. I always wanted to work metal,” Gates said. “I wanted to expand my skill-set and build connections in town because we are new here.”

He recalled his first meeting with the neon master. “I walked up to his shop and said, ‘Hey, are you Tim Leonard?’ He said, ‘Depends on who’s asking.’”

Leonard was impressed with what Gates had to offer.

“He showed me his portfolio of things he already built on his own and I was blown away,” Leonard said.

Gates spent six months working with the father and daughter making neon stars, bubbles and diamonds. In April, he officially retired from the Air Force. He now collaborates on metal projects with Leonard.

Sage Leonard assembles a neon art piece for an exhibit. She was taught by her dad, Tim Leonard. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Sage Leonard assembles a neon art piece for an exhibit. She was taught by her dad, Tim Leonard. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The bright action in The Machine Shop is a contrast to a year ago.

Due to COVID, the arcade went dark, so to speak. The machines still required firing up and a roof overhead. But no quarters came in to feed the games or the owner.

Leonard had a stash of change, but not enough to keep the place going. He did help keep the bank going. During the coin shortage, a bank called him asking to buy quarters.

With overhead expenses mounting and no quarters clinking in the arcade, Leonard faced closing for good.

The community came to his rescue.

A “Save The Machine Shop” GoFundMe started in November 2020 raised $27,545 from 240 donors. This included anonymous donations of $1,000 to $5,000.

One donor commented: “It’s such a great place for the community to gather, from kids to the elderly. Heck, my wife even had a leg of her bachelorette party there.”

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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