No Vacancy: Mike Burke’s Most Recent Project

No Vacancy: Mike Burke’s Most Recent Project

Install view of “No Vacancy“, 2021, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno

From February 23 to March 20, 2021, The Holland Project is exhibiting some of the smallest works ever made by local artist Mike Burke.  Working in almost entirely scrap metal, the artist spent his pandemic welding small-scale models of Reno’s historic landmarks.  Vintage street signs for Motor Lodge, the Merry Wink Motel, or the Donner Inn are hung in custom lightboxes created by the artist, each no more than two feet tall.  Featuring marquees with witty quotes, boarded-up panels, or real stained glass, each sign is remarkably authentic.  Some signs include electric tea lights that flicker like dead light bulbs.  A mixture of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide almost instantly rusts metal and eats paint, achieving a weathered look that many of the original signs have been left in.  Others have disappeared entirely, as Mike works from his own reference photos taken as early as 2004.  Both the original and latest versions of the iconic downtown “Reno” sign also sit on pedestals like bookends to the rest of the work.  Both signs are painted in original colors, however, the opposite side of the original sign is completely rusted over, while the opposing side of the new sign is flat black, hinting towards the future.  True ‘Renoites’ will also recognize the Mapes cowboys in the corner of the gallery from the original Mapes Hotel at 10 North Virginia Street; the first skyscraper built in the Western United States since the start of World War II.  This piece was a collaboration with a friend using decommissioned neon.

Mike Burke, Mapes, 2020, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno

This project was inspired by the rapid development that has been changing the face of downtown Reno.  The city has been reinventing itself to become the next Silicon Valley, especially since the arrival of Tesla and companies like Blockchains LLC even advocating for tech companies to form their own local governments.1 Historic locations are making way for apartment complexes built on top of shopping centers, which the city hopes will accommodate the influx of bay-area entrepreneurs.  The median home price in the city also just reached a record high of half a million dollars at the start of this year.2 According to the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless, nearly 4,000 people were living in motels in 2018.3 And while many believe that shelters will solve this crisis, the alliance also speculates that some people don’t do well in those environments and would rather live in a community along the Truckee River.  Mike’s studio space is also located along the river, where he often encounters the houseless population first-hand.  He says that now more than ever, he has felt the need to reach out directly to those most vulnerable to the pandemic.  Originally creating these pieces for fun and nostalgia, Mike now hopes that they can raise awareness of Reno’s housing crisis and raise money in support.  Ten percent of this exhibition’s proceeds will be donated towards local non-profits directly tied to housing assistance in Reno.  

(Left) Mike Burke, Desert Sunset, 2020, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno
(Right) Mike Burke, Olympic, 2020, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno

Thankfully, there are several mutual aid networks dedicated to helping our less fortunate.  The Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality, (RISE) aims to cultivate a greater sense of dignity and humility by providing equal access to shelter, knowledge, and opportunity.  Their organization provides emergency interventions, emergency housing facilities, home-cooked meals, and clothing to thousands of adults and children living in poverty throughout the year.  Our Town Reno “ – is a collective, multimedia street reporting project created by the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) students and faculty to address issues facing Reno’s most vulnerable citizens, including those without stable shelter.  Utilizing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and their own podcast, this collective is concerned with broadcasting the stories of those in need, as well as organizing occasional community events.  Please visit the City of Reno’s Homeless Resources page to see how you might be able to offer community assistance.

(Left) Mike Burke, 7/11, 2020, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno
(Right) Mike Burke, Donner, 2020, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno

These classic signs represent a flamboyant era of Reno and contribute greatly to its heritage and timelessness.  Many local organizations have been concerned with preserving these icons, including YESCO – a 100-year-old company known for creating and restoring internationally recognizable signs.  The company has also recently designed, fabricated, and installed nine historic neon signs in Reno’s Neon Line District (Including the Donner Inn, featured in this exhibition).  Encompassing 20 city blocks from West Street to Keystone Avenue, and from Interstate 80 to West Second Street, 

(Left) Mike Burke, Midtown, 2020, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno
(Right) Mike Burke, Riviera, 2020, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno

The Neon Line District is the most recent project by development company Jacobs Entertainment in their plan to preserve and protect signage from Reno’s historic West Fourth Street corridor.  The final phase of the Neon Line should be completed in mid-2021.  UNR has also offered courses designed around researching neon pieces around the region, including their design and typography.  Dr. Katherine Hepworth is the associate professor of visual journalism at the Reynolds School of Journalism and has made it her mission to preserve a record of these signs in their original state.  She and other researchers at UNR, Nevada Historical Society, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas were recently awarded a Library Services and Technology Act 2020 Grant to create this digital archive.  Holly Hutchings also reports on the future of Nevada’s neon in several articles written for KUNR: 

Mike is a 4th generation Nevadan who learned to appreciate the outdoors by way of his parents, who ran a mountaineering company until he and his brother Erik were born in the late ’70s.  Graduating from the University of Nevada Reno with a degree in anthropology, in 2006 he and a group of friends founded the Reno Bike Project; “a non-profit community bike shop and resource which advocates for a sustainable cycling community through education, collaboration, and accessibility for everyone in the Truckee Meadows.”.  As the bike project saw a major influx of unusable bikes, Mike began using the soft scrap metal to practice welding.  Creating recycled bike sculptures and bike racks, helping local businesses with metal furnishings, or lending a hand at Burning Man 2014, Mike has been welding for around 12 years now.  His custom bike racks can be seen not only in Reno, but in Mankato Minnesota, Winston-Salem North Carolina, and eventually in Santa Clarita, California.  His creations have also been exhibited at the University of Nevada Reno, the Holland Project, the Sierra Arts Center, and the Nevada Museum of Art.

Install view of “No Vacancy“, 2021, Serva Pool Gallery, Reno


Contributor –
Otis Heimer

Otis Heimer received a BA in studio art from Principia College, Illinois in 2018; where he also served as teaching assistant and assistant curator for the James K. Schmidt Gallery the following year.  Moving back to Reno in 2019, he is currently on track to receive his master’s degree in museum and gallery management from Western Colorado University this spring.  You can follow his drawings on Instagram @hella.friggin

This project was mounted as an extension to conversations presented by “Feel Just Like Home” a project organized by Michelle Lassaline and Michelle Laxalt as part of Holland Project’s Curator Series. The series is supported in part by Nevada Humanities.


1 Metz, Sam. “In Nevada desert, a technology firm aims to be a government” ABC News, 13 Feb. 2021,

2 Green, Zachary, and Bert Johnson. “Will Nevada’s Hot Housing Market Continue Into 2021?” Nevada Public Radio, 26 Jan. 2021,

3 Serrano, Stephanie. “Our Town Reno: Motel-Living and Homelessness In Reno.” KUNR, 31 Oct. 2018,