Central City Glow Up
Big Sexy Neon strives to showcase neon art and signage, educate the next generation of neon artists and keep this distinctive craft alive
1618 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard
Date building was built
Style of building’s architecture
Originally a five-and-dime store, the building has a limestone and brick façade.
Just over 5,000 square feet
Move in date
Spring of 2020
Nate Sheaffer, artist and owner of Big Sexy Neon, visited New Orleans for an athletic event in 1985 and had wanted to move here ever since. His long-held goal was finally realized in 2020.
“After a successful art show collaborating with Louis St. Lewis at Martine Chiasson Gallery in 2019, I began a relationship that made me want to move to New Orleans, which I formally did in March of 2020,” writes Sheaffer in an email. “I moved here full-time in 2020, renting the space on Oretha Castle Haley a month before the pandemic shut down. Joy! My reason for moving is … love. Probably not best to print that, except it’s true.”
Starting a business during a pandemic is far from ideal, but Shaeffer describes it as a positive experience.
“The business climate in New Orleans has been favorable and welcoming as I begin my work life in the city I love,” he writes. “The house float movement from last year’s Mardi Gras was a pleasant surprise in the midst of the bleakness of the pandemic, allowing a bit of creative engagement with the community on a scale that felt so very New Orleans, with sugar skulls, garlands, and flowers commissioned for several homes and businesses.”
As the city and its inhabitants cautiously reclaim pre-pandemic vibes, Sheaffer visited with us via an email interview about his decades-long immersion in his craft, the neon industry’s challenges, creative opportunities and the many ways in which Big Sexy Neon is staying lit.
What were your goals for the overall design concept?
Our build out of the space is minimal — basic clean-up and construction of movable partitions for displaying artwork and creating moveable tables for layout and glass bending and fabrication.
How did you end up in the neon business?
My previous location is still operational in Raleigh, North Carolina. Glas is the second iteration of [my] neon shop/studio following on the heels of Neon Impressions, Inc., which I founded immediately upon graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a B.A. in German in 1986 … After a nine-year stint as a stay-at-home parent, I started making art again, gradually working back into some old commercial accounts and specialty architectural and design firms, testing the waters to re-enter the business of making commercially viable neon art commissions. Glas in Raleigh evolved from a very small art studio to a teaching facility and larger production company with five full-time craftspeople creating corporate and private commissions shipped and installed across the country. I am still involved in the day-to-day operations of Glas with a talented staff on top of all the details requisite to complicated projects.
How would you describe your company’s mission and its core audience?
Big Sexy Neon opened at a time — the pandemic and post-pandemic — when so little was available to work on and work with. Our mission, though, remains the same. Design and manufacture high quality neon art and signage while promoting educational opportunities to keep the craft alive … The loss of actual experienced sign manufacturers of neon tubing will be significant to the trade unless a significant number of younger people become involved, soon. The loss of knowledge will feel very much like a library burning to the ground.
How do you offer something different or set yourselves apart from entities doing similar work in New Orleans?
Our studio has over 100 lighted neon pieces that range from one-of-a-kind abstracts to restorations of 1930s era signage. The open architecture and rolling walls and tables allow us to re-configure the space enough to host events ranging from 12-person gourmet dinners to 125-person celebrations with DJs, bands, and food-and-drink trucks. Recently we started bi-weekly yoga classes in the space, called “Glow and Flow,” the first of which garnered such a response as to prepare us for many more.
In the spring we will begin hosting monthly burlesque shows with local artists and musicians, combining two long associated art forms with neon and colorful ambience.
Cherry Coffee company is operating a pop-up coffee shop in the front of the space — soon to be a permanent Cherry location. We [also] sponsor pop-ups of curated local artisans and vendors. In all our endeavors, we are greeted by the wonderful people who live and work in [Central] City. The business and artistic communities have been giving to us from the first day I began work in the building. Our efforts at community engagement are important to us, from inviting new classes of students from Café Reconcile once a month for a 20-minute demonstration and sharing session regarding positive work habits, to including the Youth Empowerment Program in any pop-ups we do to allow them to spread the word about their positive works. Long-term viability of a work community depends on the health of all neighbors and their engagement on any level is critical in growing both the sense of community and the comfort of community support.
How do you promote a positive work atmosphere?
Despite the physical challenges – perhaps also owing to them – a sense of camaraderie among glass workers and apprentices quickly develops. For me – passing on the trade to those willing to put in the work and sacrifice – I want a relaxed atmosphere that will allow concentration and as much comfort as possible. Frequently, we have deadlines for such complicated work that no one has ever considered creating before, and I feel like laughter and commiseration in an environment with good music and pretty things to look at make the work easier, at least for me.
What are the biggest challenges within your industry?
Other current challenges to the trade revolve mostly around LED proliferation and a rather dishonest attempt by LED manufacturers overseas to advertise their products as neon. LED signs and artwork have an average lifespan of 7,500 operational hours before diode failure becomes rampant. Neon work, on the other hand, has an average lifespan of 175,000 hours plus, with many systems lasting 50 to 60 years without failure … Anyone with a social media account can attest to the number of advertisers flooding the market with LED neon products, cavalierly glossing over the fact that there is nothing factually neon-related to any of their products. With the erosion of the more traditional market(s), and fewer shops able to sustain themselves, the next challenge the industry faces is availability of materials and equipment. At present there are no glass tubing manufacturers for the industry in North America and no manufacturers of the fairly specific equipment needed to produce neon. Many glass shops are able to rely on buying out failed and shuttered shops’ inventories, but the cost of importing new materials is rising in leaps and bounds.
What are your biggest business challenges?
The work is hard, and often quite hot, working with fires to bend glass tubing to patterns and forms — all performed by hand. Glass shards and sharp edges can leave fingers tender and hot glass and pattern paper can reward an apprentice with second-degree burns until one becomes accustomed to working glass.
What goals are you looking to meet in the next 12 months?
Over the next 12 months, our goals include adding another two glass blowers to meet the increased demand for the work we do. Our efforts servicing large clients like Live Nation across the country will continue with more creative, memorable displays and original work while we also pursue public art projects and large space activation such as airports and convention centers nationwide. An upcoming joint show with Louis St. Lewis at Flight Gallery in San Antonio in March of 2022 will debut new works and collaborative efforts, kicking off a busy year of shows and growth in response to the world healing from the ravages of the pandemic.