We introduced you to the Art Box at North Hills in our last profile, and now we want to introduce you to the Raleigh artist behind the Art Box’s first installation: Nate Sheaffer. Sheaffer is a fabrication specialist and neon artist whose EyeCentennials exhibit is garnering attention on the ground level of the Bank of America Tower at the corner of Six Forks and Dartmouth Roads. His work is one of a kind, and we’re proud that he is helping to launch this public art collaboration between North Hills and the North Carolina Museum of Art. We got a chance to ask Nate about his work, being a neon artist in the Triangle, and why the Art Box is a fitting forum for EyeCentennials.


North Hills Live: How do you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?

Nate Sheaffer: If one hasn’t seen my work, but has walked through a field of fireflies, I’d like to think the sense of wonder is captured to some extent by my work. My sole motivation for doing what I do is to make viewers exclaim, “How does he do that?”


NHL: How did you get your start as a neon artist?

NS: While taking studio art classes in sculpture at UNC-CH, my professor, Robert Howard, suggested I use neon tubing to illuminate some of the larger sculptures I was building. He introduced me to another professor in the art department, Jerry Noe, who is an early pioneer in using neon as an artistic medium.


NHL: How long have you been doing this type of work?

NS: I opened a neon shop in Chapel Hill the year I graduated in 1986.


NHL: Where do you get your inspiration for your pieces of art?

NS: Much of what I do is driven by figures in literature, pop culture, science fiction, and nature. I spend time finding useful materials to re-purpose, bits and pieces that have visual interest – often it’s the form and interaction between found objects that drive a piece’s direction.


NHL: Where are some of the places that your work has been on display?

NS: I have pieces in Oklahoma City, OK; Muenster, Germany; Lancaster, PA; Chicago, IL; Philadelphia, PA; Washington, DC; Durham, NC; and Charlotte, NC – really, in dozens of cities where private collectors have small and medium-sized pieces as well.


NHL: Are there many other neon artists in the Triangle? What about the United States?

NS: I’m not aware of any other neon artists in the Triangle who are neon glass blowers, too. I do work for a few other artists who use neon tubing as components in their pieces. Across the U.S. there are a few dozen neon artists, some of whom are of significant renown and to whom I look to for inspiration. Lili Lakich, Keith Sonnier, Dan Flavin, Stephen Antonakas (deceased), to name a few. There are also lots of fantastic artists/technicians who are re-inventing the craft such as Bruce Suba, Wayne Strattman, Mundy Hepburn, Brian Currie, Aaron Ristau, Wade Martindale, and Eric Franklin.


NHL: What types of materials do you use?

NS: Neon work is done with glass tubing of different colors and coatings, the rare gases – neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and helium.


NHL: How do you get the color into your pieces?

NS: Color is achieved through a number of ways. Tubing can be clear or a translucent color, and both clear and colored tubing can have powder coatings that react with the different gases. Using a different gas in tubing can create distinct color differences from one type of glass to another.


NHL: How would you describe the pieces that are part of your EyeCentennials exhibit at the Art Box at North Hills right now?

NS: The EyeCentennials are a series of 100 pieces designed around the use of recycled street light lenses. My thought on the project is to explore how differently color and neon design changes work to create unique looks in identical lenses. Much of my inspiration for the pieces comes from animal eyes, insect bodies and natural forms.


NHL: Why is the display called EyeCentennials?

NS: I told my wife that I had a project in mind featuring 100 lenses that may look like eyes, but that I was having a difficult time coming up with a descriptive title. It took her less than 5 seconds to blurt out, “EyeCentennials”.


NHL: Why do you think North Hills is a good location for this exhibit?

NS: The level of foot and vehicle traffic is perfect for exposing the idea to a large audience. I like the exposure for my business, but more than that, I love sharing the things I make that I truly enjoy.


NHL: Why did you want to be part of the launch of the Art Box at North Hills?

NS: The Art Box project is a terrific way for art and the public to interact. Like most artists, I look for feedback from viewers, not necessarily as validation, but more a sharing and a collaboration where viewer response informs the direction one idea or another has taken. It’s fun for me to see and hear viewer responses as engagement is initiated. Art Box is perfect for that type of interaction.

I think it’s important for successful developers and municipal powers to keep in mind how important spaces like the Art Box are. We all need something lovely or thought provoking in the form of art to provide respite in our daily routines from the hamster wheel of modern life. I salute companies forward thinking enough to include an opportunity for all of us to enjoy art.


NHL: How has your work been received there so far?

NS: I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive responses. I like how many people have contacted me specifically to let me know which one(s) is a favorite. I am humbled by the love shown me by strangers who’ve enjoyed bathing in the glow the same way I enjoy it.