Thursday, November 1, 2012

Founding artist returns for 20th Annual Chatham Studio Tour

Eclectic sculptor Nate Sheaffer was one of the original Chatham County artists that Tour founder Cathy Holt selected to open his studio to the public in 1992. Sheaffer is one of 50 artists who live and create in Chatham County, who will open their studios the first two weekends in December for the 20th Annual Chatham Studio Tour. Art-lovers can meet Tour artists and see samplings of their works at receptions at FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill on November 29th from 7 to 9 PM, and November 30th at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro from 7 to 9 PM.

Chatham Artist Nate Sheaffer
Photo by: Bruce DeBoer
Sheaffer has been creating and building since his childhood on the banks of the Susquehanna River in tiny Liverpool, Pennsylvania. “I was the baby of eight kids,” Sheaffer notes. “My mother was a great illustrator, but didn’t have much time for art with two jobs – a tailor and seamstress in a dress factory, and occasionally as a hair dresser in the local funeral home,” he remembers. “My dad was a machinist, and dug graves with my uncle.” Sheaffer’s father created airboats for riding the mile across river, using airplane engines that he had recycled.

The river was a continuous inspiration for the family. “My father, my brothers and I built cabins on islands out in the river from wood and other materials that we scavenged from its waters, Sheaffer recalls. “As a 14 year old boy, this was one of the first things that I built, and I never stopped building,” Sheaffer asserts.

Sculpture by Nate Sheaffer
Sheaffer came to North Carolina in the early 80s with a javelin throwing scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill. “My brother won the same scholarship previously,” he notes. Sheaffer was a German language and literature major, but really enjoyed sculpture classes with well known UNC teacher Robert Howard, who created large cast and welded sculptures, and Jerry Noe, who made mixed media works, often employing neon. “Noe urged me to employ neon to lighten up my sculptural pieces,” Sheaffer reflects.

Sheaffer sought the guidance of John Wilhelm, who owned Paradise Neon in Raleigh. “This was a critical influence for me,” he states. “John tutored me for free, and encouraged me to set up my own neon shop in Chapel Hill in 1986.”

After six months, it was clear to Sheaffer that he would not make a good living making neon art, so he turned his creativity to commercial production. Ultimately, he grew the business, Neon Impressions to 25 employees centered in Chatham County. “We made thousands of neon signs and distributed nationally and internationally,” he asserts. “Coca Cola signs throughout Germany were made right here.” From 1992 to 1994 he opened the shop in Pittsboro as a participant in the new Chatham Studio Tour.

Nate Sheaffer employs neon in eclectic art
As Sheaffer’s business grew, it left little time for creating art, but in 1999, production neon began to be off shored to China. Sheaffer sold off the business and property. He worked for a time as a project manager and estimator for a contractor in Siler City. For the last several years, Nate Sheaffer has been a full time stay at home dad for his son and daughter. His wife is a pediatric neurologist. “Laundry, shopping, cooking, reading to the kids, didn’t leave much time for creating art,” he grins. Now with both children in school, Sheaffer is “scratching my creative itch” once more. “I am so excited to participate in the 20th Chatham Studio Tour,” Sheaffer emotes. I will exhibit with my friend, and fellow glass artist Jonathan Davis in his studio.”  See a video on Sheaffer's work.

The Tour has now grown to over 50 artists. In addition to Nate Sheaffer, nine new artists join the Tour this year: potter Trish Welsh; quilter Suzanna Stewart; pastel artist Carolyn Schrock; fiber artist Christie Minchew; jewelry maker Lynell Dodge; basket weaver Jan Dunn; photographer Len Jacobs; and furniture maker Erik Wolken.

The Chatham Studio Tour is a holiday tradition, and an opportunity to see and purchase unique original art. Visitors from all around enjoy Chatham’s rural beauty and share with the members of the Chatham Artists Guild in the creative process. “Our Tour is an important economic engine,” notes Guild President, Julia Kennedy. Last year, Tour visitors came from counties all around North Carolina, and as far away as New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California. “As they travel around Chatham, they stop at restaurants, gas stations and all kinds of local businesses,” Kennedy continues.  

A free self-guided brochure and tour map can be found in numerous locations throughout the area, including: FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill, Saxaphaw Artists Gallery, McIntyres Fine Books in Fearrington Village, PAF Gallery in Siler City and The Joyful Jewel in Pittsboro. An online gallery of selected Tour art, information about participating artists, and a tour map and guide can be found on the Chatham Artists Guild website at:

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