Column: From beer to Buster Brown, Richard Ybarra neon photos will light up some memories

The seductive glow of a neighborhood movie theater marquee, with its promise of buttered popcorn and a triple bill escape. A sparkling casino sign that makes you feel richer just by looking at it. The mysterious logo invites you to a dive bar in the friendly neighborhood.

In “Lights, Night: NEON, Photographys That Glow,” San Diego artist Richard Ybarra’s new photography exhibition, history looks like a 46-foot-high neon master drum, a picturesque Chinese restaurant dragon and a wobbling bowling pin. Those cheerful signs announcing vintage car dealerships, dilapidated movie theatres, and Buster Brown shoes are also some of the indelible things of indelible memories.

“Some people don’t like looking back, but I don’t. I love memories. I see nostalgia as part of history, and I think history is very important,” said Ybarra, who grew up in La Mesa and now lives near San Diego State.

“Whether they are historical figures, historical objects or historical events, my photos represent that history and those memories, good or bad. That is how I look at them.”

Richard Ybarra’s photographs of the Campus Drive-In Theater marquee (left) and the famous home neon sign.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Lights, Night: NEON” runs until August 15 at the BFree cq studio in La Jolla, and showcases Ybarra’s love for the craft behind the trade. The 80 images featured in the gallery feature local icons such as the Aero Club Bar on India Street; the luxury sign of an old Honda dealership on El Cajon Street (a revamp of the original Dick Grihalva Buick, which was a landmark in its own right); and the Campus Drive-In Theatre, with its clubbed whirlpool and a tribute to SDSU’s Hardy Memorial Tower.

The oldest piece in this collection is Ybarra’s 1980 photo of the Campus Drive-In marquee, a gigantic neon spectacle that eventually ended up in what is now the Marketplace in Grove Shopping Center after the 35-year-old was demolished in 1983. The most recent captured Pictures just two months ago, when Ybarra finally fulfilled his dream of visiting Nashville and Memphis. Hollywood and Las Vegas were also represented.

But whether they’re hanging out in beer, bowling, or blues, these signs do so with bold colors, prints, and wild designs that pounce, creep, and sizzle. And while your mind says it’s all just advertising, Ybarra is here to tell you it’s art.

“For me, the attraction is the strong colors, designs and typography. I really appreciate the shapes and beauty of this glowing light,” said Ybarra, who started his career as a graphic artist and art director for advertising agencies, before moving on to a long career in teaching. He spent 21 years at the School of Advertising Arts (which became the Art Institute of California-San Diego), and seven years at the UCSD Extension.

Richard Ybarra's photo of the Aztec theater in 1980.

Richard Ybarra took this photo of the Aztec Theater in downtown San Diego in 1982. The theater opened in 1919, and is now an Urban Outfitters store.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ybarra’s appreciation for beauty in supposedly disposable pop culture goes back to his childhood days watching “The Lone Ranger” and “Hopalong Cassidy” on TV. His father was a fan of Hollywood Westerns, so Ybarra became one as well.

Now, 74-year-old Ybarra is a self-described “cowboy wannabe” who loves rodeos, ghost towns, cowboy boots, and the cowboy-focused Lone Pine Film Festival. Western landscapes and icons are also one of Ybarra’s biggest artistic sentiments. In June, he concluded his second exhibition of Western-themed drawings, prints, and photographs at the Olaf Wighurst Museum in El Cajon.

“There’s so much I love about the West. I love the ruggedness. I love the fact that the frontier guy comes across the plains and heads west for a new life. It’s the thrill of adventure. When I go to a western festival, I’m in my glory.”

In the images featured in “Lights, Night: Neon,” Ybarra pays tribute to the fading boundaries of old-school (Aztec, Loma) cinemas; Departed restaurants (Horton Plaza Panda Inn, Cafe in the Valley); and funky motels (Chief Hotel Court in Las Vegas). And thanks to the glow that comes with the area, even the newer signs—Betty Boots at Nashville’s and Luke’s 32 Bridge—feel as emanating from neon’s old-fashioned past.

They are old. It’s new. They are history. It is a memory. For Richard Ybarra, the neon signs he depicts are all of these things. But above all, they are art, which makes them timeless. And if nothing else, he hopes the show will remind viewers to take the time to appreciate it.

“I feel like people nowadays are drowning in their daily business affairs, not paying attention to it,” Ybarra said. “They don’t take the time to say, ‘Oh my God, look at that. “But I do.”

Richard Ybarra’s “Lights, Night: NEON” will be shown until August 15 at BFree Studio, 7857 Girard Ave., La Jolla. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Ybarra will be giving a lecture at the gallery from 5-7 p.m. on August 12. Go to bfreestudio.net for information.

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