Todd Sanders is having a love affair with Austin.
One of the first words [my son] ever said was ‘neon.’ He loves neon and Johnny Cash.
It began in college when he took a road trip, fell in love with her originality and knew he wanted to spend his life getting to know her.
But it wasn’t always easy.
Austin tried many times to kick him out. They fought, mostly about money and how he felt she didn’t appreciate his art. But Todd persevered, and 22 years later, Austin’s love for him has only grown.
Todd, now 47, creates neon art pieces whose popularity grows exponentially with each one sold. His signature style produces a flashy, weathered, vibrant piece of art that captures the electric excitement of the 1930s and 40s.
Longtime residents of Austin may recognize his South First Street shop, Roadhouse Relics, as the former Baker’s Fruit Stand. Everyone else is familiar with it as the site of the postcard-worthy mural of the city of Austin. Todd bought the run-down grocery store complete with a collapsed roof and backyard trailer. Dedicated to his dream, Todd repaired the roof by hand.
“I lived in the old trailer in the back for almost 10 years before a beautiful princess rescued me,” he says, referring to his wife, Sarah. They met when, on her second day as an Austinite, she walked into his shop to purchase a piece. Two years later, he proposed with a handmade neon two-foot-by-three-foot sign that read, “Sarah, will you marry me?” which now resides in their child’s bedroom.
“My son is the only three-year-old with a $10,000 neon sculpture in his room,” Todd jokes. “One of the first words he ever said was ‘neon.’ He loves neon and Johnny Cash.”
On his journey to stardom, Todd wore many hats. He started as an apprentice at a small gallery downtown.
It was a struggle for way over 10 years. I could barely keep the lights on… I stuck with it and people finally started responding.
“They wouldn’t hire me; they said they didn’t need any help,” Todd explains. “So I came back every day for like a week.” Eventually, they hired him for a two-week stint and ended up keeping him around for three years.
Later, he started a sign repair business called Fast and Fair Sign Repair and “drove around town fixing signs and kidding myself that I was going to do vintage signage in my spare time.”
Finally, he took the plunge and dove in headfirst.
“I sold the truck and turned off the beeper and closed the business,” Todd said. “I kind of forced myself into this because I knew if I had another avenue I wouldn’t go full-fledged into this.” So, in 1997, Roadhouse Relics was born.
“It was a struggle for way over 10 years. I could barely keep the lights on and I drove a little 10-15 year old crappy car all the time,” he says. “I stuck with it and people finally started responding.” As of now, he has a seven-month waiting list to start custom work. “As soon as I make a piece, it sells,” he says.
The art world has also taken notice. Recently, Shepard Fairey, the artist behind OBEY GIANT and the Obama HOPE campaign poster, showed Todd’s work in an art show in Charleston, South Carolina in partnership with notable abstract artist Jasper Johns.
“I was tickled that I was in such good company,” Todd says.
Todd’s most popular piece is a five-foot-tall electric blue mason jar with blinking yellow fireflies inside – instantly bringing any Texan back to childhood summer evenings spent capturing the magical bugs. It was originally made for country stars Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton’s wedding. Todd’s now on number 20. He makes them two at a time, and before they’re even finished, they’re sold; he’s never had one up for sale in the gallery. Each one is valued at $7,500.
“I’m excited about pursuing more important pieces – pieces that make a statement, not just ‘diner’ or a beer mug,” he says.
An example of his socially-conscious art is his “Modern” piece, which he rusted and to which he added a Sputnik on top.
“It’s kind of a statement on when the Sputnik came out; it was the newest thing in the world, so atomic age, so space age, and now it’s just this quaint relic,” Todd explains. “Well, your iPhone is going to be like that someday; it’s going to be like the 8-track of the 2000s.”
At the Texas Stampede for Children, put on by the Mack, Jack & McConaughey foundation earlier this year, a piece from Todd – a “Live Music Capital of the World” sign atop an Austin-themed longhorn sculpted by local artist Rory Skagen – was auctioned off for charity to the tune of $100,000.
“I think people really embrace something that’s fully made by hand by artisans, and it also reflects an era that they’re nostalgic about,” Todd says. “It’s the simplicity of their childhood.”
For a man who’s made a career out of living in the past, though, he’s surprisingly modern.
“I just love celebrating that era but I’m born for this time,” Todd says. “I wouldn’t go back. It had its own hang-ups and small-minded people… I think the world’s a better place now.”
And although Austin has changed tremendously over the 17 years he’s lived here, he still finds plenty to appreciate in his first love: namely, that vibrant spark that drew him in as a young man.
“Every interstate that I’m on now, everything looks exactly the same. But when you’re in Austin, you know you’re in Austin. They don’t care what you’re into – just be into it and let it own you.”
It’s the only town where everyone sits around talking about how much they love living here.
In the city he loves, Todd finds plenty of others who share the same passion about where they live.
“It’s the only town where everyone sits around talking about how much they love living here,” he says. “Standing in line at the grocery store and people saying, ‘Don’t you just love Austin?’”
So, now that he’s finally made it, is his love affair all that he thought it would be during that fateful college road trip?
“It is actually more than I dreamed of,” he admits. “I am living a life that’s far beyond any dreams that I could ever imagine…I want to live up to my full potential as an artist, (and) fully pursue all of my creativity.”
He’ll never stop being passionate about it, either, he says: “I’ve spent 22 years trying to pay that debt back because Austin has given me everything, it really has.”
And as for what’s ahead, specifically? It’s, quite simply, to keep making neon art until they “put him in the home.”
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Photography: Molly Winters