Next time your parents visit and bring you to Big Sky Cafe for the obligatory free meal, take a moment to look around between bites of the expensive thing you ordered. If you don’t, you’ll miss the collection of pop culture Americana that warms the room under its fluorescent oil strokes.
For the past two years, Cuesta Emeritus College and Allan Hancock College professor Kristopher Doe has meticulously worked and reworked a collection of paintings that illustrate 1960s nostalgia with neon store signs titled “Neon Nation.” Filaments bend and trace along the calligraphy; they lead the eye off the canvas to the imaginary business entrance.
The only thing missing is the buzz of ionized gas.
Everything about the works are deliberate, but the idea came to Doe through coincidence. He journeyed across the U.S. to help a friend move and stumbled upon his next big project. All of the paintings are of actual places — some local, some across the country.
“I started noticing in every town I was seeing the same corporate restaurants everywhere,” Doe said. “So the little mom-and-pop places would sort of stick out. Now that stuff’s kind of disappearing in our corporate age.”
Doe generally works as a landscape artist. However, according to colleague and former studio-mate Chris Cuyler, Doe moves out of his element when he sees fit.
“He decided to give abstract a shot,” Cuyler said. “He went all the way to Utah to capture that with a few large canvases. They were landscapes, but more abstract. He stepped out of the box.”
As a child of the ’60s, Doe couldn’t resist incorporating the remnants of a fleeting time into his work.
A constant theme for Doe in his exhibit has been daylight. Neon is usually visualized in a nighttime setting, but Doe’s focus is on the daylight shadows such peculiar shapes project. The style gives off a warm-to-the-touch impression.
“Looking at the workings, and not only the classic design of the image itself, but I’m fascinated by the tubes and intertwining — the shadows they cast during the daylight hours,” he said. “I have a fascination with the neon signs in conjunction with the classic Americana design.”
The time of the mom-and-pop business may be increasingly rare in a society driven by big corporations. At least, for the time being, the attitude of small-town hospitality is safe at Big Sky Cafe.