Handiwork: One Man’s Story about Rediscovering His Art

Tue, May 4, 2010

Editorials, Nate Sheaffer

Nate Sheaffer - Neon Sculptor / Author

Ten years ago, my life changed forever. Early in 1999, I lost my glassblowing business to offshore competition, followed eight months later by the suicide of my closest brother – my own Y2K meltdown. Losing the brother, some who knew him would say, was every bit as inevitable as having the company disappear in the ever-flattening world of labor distribution. In odd and very different ways, both losses eventually improved my life, also inserting an interesting speed bump, rather – a detour – in my creative life.

I’d been working myself sick – meeting deadlines for production neon sign orders and managing two dozen employees did nothing for my health, which I had been neglecting ever since graduating college. The first half dozen years, I pulled many more all-nighters bending glass than I’d ever done studying. The company grew into something so unrecognizable from the small sculpture studio and boutique glass shop I’d started thirteen years earlier, morphing into a hungry, ugly albatross with monthly overhead twice the size of the first year’s gross revenues – so much more a greedy burden than creative passion. Four months after shutting down production, friends told me I looked ten years younger. I certainly felt at least ten years less burdened.

The loss of the brother, well…what can I say in less than a hundred million words that might adequately convey my sense of loss? I grew up idolizing him the way younger siblings often do. Eventually, we worked together; in fact, he was employee number one when time came to hire someone, and so the two things – neon company and brother – are inextricably tangled in both glorious memory and flaming demise.

Garth was my brother’s name, and when he died, my creative energies turned to writing about him and the many adventures we shared. The cathartic aspects of the process – getting it all out, onto paper – put his life and death into a kind of manageable perspective allowing me to remember without breaking down every day into a puddle of sorrow.

During ten years, learning to express feelings and ideas on paper, a gnawing gap widened in my soul’s creative core, quite literally in the motor memory of my creative soul. Before the losses, I’d spent thirteen years making things with my hands, creating neon and steel sculptures, neon signs, animated displays, advertising prototypes – things. I value the creative process governing writing – constructing sentences and developing plots and characters – but my arms and hands ache to make things.

Not long after Garth died, I moved out of a space specifically designed to enable creation of sculpture. Then I moved again into another home with no workspace whatsoever, and then again and then once more this past year, making it difficult for me to even imagine assembling any of the dozens of sculptures for which I’ve carried drawings and parts longer than a decade. This spring, I put it out of my head that I needed to have a bona fide shop to create sculpture; lack of a perfect work environment had become my best excuse.

Though no one but myself had been keeping me from working, I actually said, aloud, inside a small storage shed, “You’re allowed to do this again.” In the corner, the only witness, a black and white illustration of a woman stared at me through ten years of dirt and grime. She was the last thing Garth created – an image he’d incorporated into a neon wall hanging modeled after the graphic on his favorite t-shirt. Her odd smile looked angry through the decade of schmutz; angry that I’d let her neon tubing become broken and paid her no attention since Garth died.

I organized the shed and began assembling neon and aluminum bits and pieces into my first thing in a long, long time. Between taking care of my children full-time and writing, I spent the next month working in two-hour bursts – every third day or so – until the magic moment arrived when I plugged the piece into a drop cord draped seventy-five feet across the yard to the shed.

In terms of the sculpture itself, the result was what I expected; one or two elements not exactly as intended, but mostly it represented a fully fleshed-out version of my ten-year-old sketch. What caught me off guard was how allowing myself to create (even in a less-than-ideal space) flipped a maniacal switch whose contacts had rusted years ago. Within days, I repaired Garth’s last neon piece, hung it in my home, and began a daily routine of gathering and sorting materials for the next projects.

It’s been a difficult, long decade, living with the idea of creating sculpture relegated to memory and imagination and now, suddenly – thankfully, it’s just as difficult to imagine stopping.

artist, Artistic Expression, Craft, Craftsmen, Creativity, Inspiration

3 Responses to “Handiwork: One Man’s Story about Rediscovering His Art”

  1. Meg Says:

    Wow, Nate – I didn’t know about Garth. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. The neon is very cool – I’m happy you’re allowing yourself to be creative again. Sounds like it’s exactly what you need at exactly the right time.

    • Nate Says:

      Thanks, Meg! This time around, creating is even (somehow!?) more fun than the first time around.

  2. berto Says:

    I feel the same way about making music. I can tell you that at least for me i feel alive again. Very glad you are cleaning the contacts.


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