Nate Sheaffer began an art career that has spanned nearly 40 years by blowing glass while in college at the University of North Carolina. By the time he graduated in 1986 with a degree in German, working with glass had led to an enduring passion for neon and to Sheaffer’s first neon business.

“When I started blowing glass … I was drawn to the light,” says Sheaffer. “That fueled me to become a neon glass blower. Every inch of a neon sign is bent by a human being. I was drawn to the handmade nature of it.”

Sheaffer’s experience includes crafting his own original sculpture, producing commercial signage and even manufacturing and wholesaling neon tubing. Along the way, he has collected hundreds of pieces of vintage neon, much of which he refurbishes and sells.

While many of his early works were abstract, he describes his latest original pieces as “exotic” and “kinetic.” A work entitled “Light The Woods with Sound,” exhibited at a park in Raleigh, North Carolina, consisted of hundreds of vibrant neon coils programmed to original digital compositions and audience input via musical instruments. Locally, a smaller outdoor installation of 24 neon units was at the Lafitte Greenway last fall.

Sheaffer patterned his current Raleigh studio on God’s Own Junkyard, a “kaleidoscopic” warehouse of neon north of London, and now the artist, who splits his time between Raleigh and New Orleans, has brought a similar environment — Big Sexy Neon — to the revitalized Oretha Castle Haley corridor.

Colorful neon radiates through the windows across the front of the space (originally a five and dime, more recently the home of Zeitgeist Arts Center and now a hip destination with an industrial SoHo feel) that Sheaffer and partner Dianna Knost are busily completing for its spring opening.

Inside the remodeled circa-1905 building that will serve as a gallery, rentable event venue and coffee shop, a glowing white neon piece against one wall announces “This Must Be The Place.”

Knost’s curatorial eye and creative spirit, known from her former shop, A.K.A. Stella Gray, complements Sheaffer’s stable of work, which ranges from edgy to ethereal and the two have collaborated on multiple works. The coffee shop, La Vie En Rose, run by Kirby Jones and previously housed at the CAC, is intended to make the studio as much of a gathering place as an art space.

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