UNC graduate Nate Sheaffer found his calling in glass blowing, though not immediately. During his tenure as a Tar Heel he took courses in video arts, but fell in love with glass blowing after a chance encounter.
“At the art lab at UNC, someone had donated a complete glass blowing set-up and I started using that and practicing on glass that was donated,” Sheaffer said. “I became somewhat addicted to glass blowing.”
Sheaffer’s artistic path was influenced by John Wilhelm of Paradise Neon in Raleigh.
“John and I hit it off and John encouraged me to bend more glass and eventually encouraged me to open up an art shop,” Sheaffer said. “I did so right after college not knowing how foolish that was but it has worked out.”
Sheaffer recommended aspiring artists get a job working for someone in the arts before trying to go out and open their own shop. He said it is best to learn from people who’ve already gone down the path they’re looking at.
“It’s not easy and if you want to make a living at it, you’ve got to hustle every day, 14 hours a day,” Sheaffer said. “That is, unless you have some extraordinary connections that are going to make it easier for you to break into a world of artistic work.”
His original art business — Neon Impressions — which he ran with his brother — shut down after commercial neon production was moved predominately to China, though that was nowhere near the end of his career in the arts.
“I took a job in a construction company as a project manager for a few years and then took a few years as a stay at home dad,” Sheaffer said. “I started getting back into neon about five or six years ago.”
Before Sheaffer had the studio that houses Glas — what he describes on his website as his “Fancy Factory” — he was living in a house that had a large shed where he could assemble art.
“I turned to a friend of mine in Chatham County, Jonathan Davis, who owns Locally Grown Art,” Sheaffer said. “He’s a glass blower and he let me use his parts and space to set up a glass blowing shop for me.”
Sheaffer said setting up shop in Chatham County got him back into the Chatham Artists Guild that he was a part of when they first started, 26 years ago.
“I suddenly had a space at my house, a space at Jonathan’s studio and eventually I moved into a new house and I was able to move my glass blowing studio into a large finished basement in that house,” Sheaffer said. “At that point, I decided that I needed to invest in a space to do assembly work.”
His next destination? Raleigh.
Sheaffer’s shop is located at the corner of Whitaker Mill Road and Atlantic Avenue in Raleigh. It is a 260,000 square foot warehouse that was originally the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company district provider for North Carolina.
“I think the building is about 70 years old and we are in it with a bunch of other businesses,” Sheaffer said. “We wound up taking the boiler room with 18-foot ceilings and oversized brick walls and lots of character even without a single piece of neon on it.”
That character is something his Chatham location lacked.
“Our production facility out in Chatham County had a lot of really nice neon chimes and lights that we had done but didn’t really put any evident decoration in the place and we were just too busy to collect anything and really be able to appreciate things like that,” Sheaffer said.
Comfortably situated in his new space, Sheaffer has been able to flourish. He said even though he doesn’t go out selling their products, he’s had so much repeat business that they’ve been able to open up another decent-sized studio.
“(Social media is) one way we get business, as well as word of mouth and referrals,” Sheaffer said. “A large client of ours is Live Nation and we do VIP rooms and entryways for Live Nation’s music festivals all across the country.”
Over the years, Sheaffer has collected pieces of art — neon and not — that adorn the walls at Glas.
“I have some iconic Raleigh and North Carolina finds that are on display here along with about 200 other neon pieces, some of them vintage, some of them abstract art and some of them signage that has been converted into something a little bit more.”
Sheaffer said he has been able to pick up finds from as far back as 1928, such as his cleaners sign that was hanging in Asheboro. His most recent find is from a Cairo drive-in movie theater sign that he found outside of Fuquay-Varina.
Most of his pieces are for sale, however, there are a few of them that he said he could never part with.
“I have one piece that I will never sell that is one of the last neon pieces my sibling made before he passed away,” Sheaffer said. “I have the memories of him making that and it reminds me of him whenever I look at it, and that’s a great thing.”