Midtown Raleigh News

Triangle artist Nate Sheaffer sheds light on junkyard art

Neon light reflects on the face of artist Nate Sheaffer as he installs over 400 lengths of bicycle chains behind the bar at Crank Arm Brewing Company in Raleigh on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Sheaffer is a local artist specializing in installations featuring neon and LED lights.
Neon light reflects on the face of artist Nate Sheaffer as he installs over 400 lengths of bicycle chains behind the bar at Crank Arm Brewing Company in Raleigh on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Sheaffer is a local artist specializing in installations featuring neon and LED lights. JULI LEONARD

After pouring out a big bucket of lacquer thinner, Nate Sheaffer took up another bundle of bicycle chains and set to work.

“Be careful what you ask for,” he said, rubbing a chain with a rag. “Every day, I think of that and laugh. I enjoy the complications of highly detailed things – right up to the point where I have to actually do them. And they look great, but there’s 50 hours of tedium to do something ‘simple.’ So here I’ve got 480 lengths of chain, which translates into 960 sets of screws to put up.”

Still, the payoff would be worth it. Sheaffer was hard at work at Crank Arm Brewing Company, a new brewpub in downtown Raleigh. Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $42,000, the brewery is an offshoot of Crank Arm Rickshaw, a transport service that gives people rides in bike-powered passenger carts. Not surprisingly, bicycle themes predominate at the brewery, down to brew names such as Rickshaw Rye and Unicycle.

With decor by Sheaffer, a local artist specializing in installations featuring neon and LED (light-emitting diode) lights, Crank Arm is also as much of an industrial art gallery as it is a drinking spot. The chains Sheaffer worked on were destined to form a backlit wall behind the bar, across from an interactive work taking up three 6-foot-by-12-foot panels. Turn cranks on the interactive piece, and bicycles travel across vistas fashioned of parts welded together from 70 bikes Sheaffer and his kids broke down.

“Just another thing to confuse and befuddle the drunkards, which I like to think of as my life’s work,” Sheaffer joked as he cleaned. “The cranks are the same mechanism used in coin crushers in museums. It’s stout with redundancies for safety, bolted to the wall and also cabled to the ceiling. I’m overbuilding it, but drunks are drunks.”

“Dad,” piped up Sheaffer’s 8-year-old son, Adam, from a nearby perch. “Why did you have us take all those bikes apart so long ago? That was at least three years ago!”

“Actually, more like three months,” Sheaffer told his son, pouring out another bucket of solvent.

“Is that water?” young Adam asked.

“Fire water. Don’t drink it.”

You hear a lot about foreign competition taking over America’s industrial base, and that’s exactly what put Sheaffer out of business in his previous career. Before reinventing himself as a full-time artist, Sheaffer ran a company that made commercial neon lights, stamping out identical duplicates of neon beer-company and retail-store signs by the thousands.

But manufacturers in China undercut the entire U.S. market for neon signs in the spring of 1999. Sheaffer went from the 15th-largest neon producer in the U.S. to out of business in a matter of months. By the end, Sheaffer and his brother were the last two employees – down from a peak of more than 20 full-time workers. They shut the company down with one last custom sign out the door, and a six-pack of beer as a chaser.

Sheaffer was anything but bitter about it, however.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much I’d come to despise what I was doing until taking a step back. I was wrapped up in every day’s task list, making payroll and everything else. I’d gotten so far away from making art, it was hard to believe I’d ever let that happen. I enjoy the prototyping and making the first few things of something, but not the mass production. And it had gotten to where mass production was all I did.”

‘I turn things into other things’

After going to work for a commercial construction company in Siler City, Sheaffer started putting as much energy as he could into doing art pieces on the side. Neon emerged as Sheaffer’s specialty while he studied art at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s, when he started incorporating it into his sculptures. Nowadays, he uses as much LED lighting as neon.

“He’s incredibly knowledgeable about the technologies, and he also has a pretty good artistic eye,” said Craig Kerins, owner of Raleigh Architecture and Construction Companies and a regular client. “Not everyone has both. He’s a real whiz at LED, color-changing lights, things like that.”

When Sheaffer’s son was born in 2005, he quit working to be a stay-at-home dad while his wife, a pediatric neurologist, took care of the bread-winning. Once his younger daughter started kindergarten last year, Sheaffer relaunched himself into art full time, making one-of-a-kind indoor and outdoor signs and installations from his Raleigh house and Chatham County workshop. A business card advertises his wares as sculpture, illumination and “Voodoo Upcycling.”

“I turn things into other things,” he said. “Sow’s ears into silk purses. I enjoy recycling. Not just because I’m cheap, but because I like making things out of materials destined for the scrap heap.”

Repurposing for ‘cooler’ result

Some of Sheaffer’s more striking works include “Eyecentennial,” a series of 100 sculptures made from old streetlights, and a recently installed sign for the Springboard Innovation Hub at NCSU’s Centennial Campus.

Crank Arm represents the most ambitious project during this stage of Sheaffer’s career, and it fits the brewery’s overall mission of repurposing. The pub’s brewing system is recycled from another brewery, and wooden beams from the old Dillon Supply Company building in Raleigh were used to make a low interior wall that Sheaffer decorated with industrial-sized gears.

“We had some ideas about the interior, wanted to do some things,” said Adam Echardt, one of Crank Arm’s partners. “Nate ran with the concepts and brought them to exciting new extremes. It looks great.”

A large part of Crank Arm’s vibe involves lighting and its reflection off of all of Sheaffer’s bicycle-themed pieces.

“I look forward to drinking a beer here and basking in all the different light,” he said. “There will be lots of fun things going on, overhead and on the walls, and drinking a beer under that will be cool. Much cooler than seeing what I used to make, which was Miller Lite sign No. 200,736.”