Danielle Kelly

Guardian of the Lights

When you spend even a few moments with artist Danielle Kelly, you realize that you’re in for a hell of a good conversation. It’s the openness of her face, the energy in her eyes—a kind of restless curiosity and penetrating intelligence about the world around her.

These traits are useful in her current position as operations manager at the Neon Boneyard, the museum of classic illuminated signs on Las Vegas Boulevard near Cashman Field. She is steering the museum’s ambitious transformation of the mid-century modern lobby of the old La Concha motel into a visitor center, a project that will be completed late this year.

The St. Louis native came to Las Vegas right before 9/11 from Portland, Ore., a city whose ultra-liberal, tree-hugging milieu would seem to suit her well. But the fecundity of the city, its abundant vegetation and moisture, crowded her mind; its liberal ways meant Kelly was surrounded by like-minded thinkers. Most people prefer this, but for Kelly it was a creative obstacle. “I wasn’t processing information in the way I wanted to,” she says.

She found a better muse in the spare, hard Mojave Desert, which calms her down, and in wide-open Las Vegas. “You can take a lot of risks here. That’s what I fully embrace about being here,” she says. “The whole spiral of this city—the last frontier, the Wild West—is ever present.”

She’s become an indispensable part of the arts community. She received her MFA at UNLV and has taught at the university. She’s an art critic. She regularly exhibits. Her art is restlessly inventive: In her garage studio, she’s glued dozens of pieces of newsprint and magazine pages atop a base page layered with painting and drawing, then sanded parts of the composition to reveal the accumulation of images below. It’s a complex and beautiful mediation on erasure and accumulation, not only an expression of the multivalence of signs but a depiction of the layered geologic forms of the region she now calls home.

Kelly, 40, reminds us that we don’t have to look outside to validate ourselves. The museum, she says, “stands as a monument to the history of this incredibly unique and singular art form, as it was only developed in Las Vegas. … I just hope it’s a source of pride and a testament to the creativity and the spirit of this community.”