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A compilation of neon art and signs captures an era in New Mexico’s colorful history

Bob Matteucci with the original sign for The Paris Shoe Shop.

Bob Matteucci with the original sign for The Paris Shoe Shop.

At first blush, you might think “The Zeon Files” is merely a book of working drawings for commercial neon signs.

But look again. It’s an intriguing read that fuses neon as visual art with the cultural and urban history of mid-20th century New Mexico.

The book’s title takes its name from the Albuquerque-based business Zeon Signs, officially Electrical Products of New Mexico. Its subtitle suggests another reason for reader interest – “Art and Design of Historic Route 66 Signs.”

Most, but not all, of the neon signs in the book are mounted atop businesses along the legendary highway.

A working drawing for the Paris Shoe Shop, an Albuquerque-owned chain of stores that lasted from the 1930s to the 1980s.

A working drawing for the Paris Shoe Shop, an Albuquerque-owned chain of stores that lasted from the 1930s to the 1980s.

There are working drawings (but no photos of neon signs) for, among others, Eddie’s Inferno, Beto’s Restaurant, Bunny Bread and the Terrace Drive-In.

There’s a drawing – and a neon sign – on facing pages for The Paris Shoe Shop. It was a locally owned chain of stores that thrived from the 1930s to the 1980s.

The book features a photo of Bob Matteucci Jr. standing in front of the sign from the last remaining Paris store, at 307 E. Central in Albuquerque. Matteucci’s immigrant great-grandfather, Pompilio Matteucci, founded a shoe repair shop that he transformed and expanded into six retail stores.

Shortly after the Downtown store closed, the story goes, two women partying at a bar climbed the Paris store roof, unfastened the neon sign and fled with it. Years later, one of the women ran into a Matteucci family member, confessed to the theft, and returned the sign.

Bks_j18Sept_Zeon_CMYKMark C. Childs and Ellen D. Babcock wrote the book. They discuss the discovery of working drawings. The authors also recount the 100-plus years of neon and issues such as design methods and the construction of neon and the craft of neon drafting techniques.

The book’s final chapter, “New Riffs,” covers neon-inspired creativity.

“In Albuquerque,” the authors write, “there is an emerging practice of creating artworks that riff on the signs, their changed urban contexts, and their cultural resonances.”

Childs is an associate dean and a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning. Babcock is a UNM associate professor of sculpture.

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