Hey, did you hear about this light-and-sound thing in Raleigh?
No, not You Are Here at NCMA. Light the Woods with Sound, a new public-art installation, is up—very up—in Dix Park this month. Local neon artist Nate Sheaffer suspended hundreds of pieces of glowing tube high in a clutch of trees, timed to flash in various patterns with looping music. But the piece is more than lulling to look at; it's also fun to play with.
The neon pieces consist of loops and coils that drip from the boughs; there are also glass eggs that glow and fade like fireflies. Though Dix Park Conservancy and the Raleigh Arts office provided the opportunity, Sheaffer has long been fixated on the vision of neon in trees. Maybe it began when he did an installation in Oklahoma City combining real trees with neon ones. Maybe it was earlier, when he threw a party with bands on a river island, using generators to power amplifiers and neon in the trees. Or maybe it was when Sheaffer, while studying German literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, also studied art with Robert Howard and Jerry Noe, contemporaries of neon-art pioneers like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Sheaffer was particularly struck by Noe's installations in creek beds.
"Super-organic, taking a high-voltage element and throwing it into nothing but earth," Sheaffer says. "The water, the reflections, they were fantastic."
After getting into glassblowing and neon-bending in college, Sheaffer started his own shop, Neon Impressions, in Chapel Hill. He employed dozens of workers for twelve years, creating signs for everything from Miller beer to Krispy Kreme. That business folded in the late nineties, when Chinese production took over the industry, by which time Sheaffer had gotten so busy with commercial work he barely had time to make art. At his current workshop, Glas, in the old boiler room of Raleigh's Dock 1053 warehouse, he focuses on art while doing some sign work for longtime partners.
As we sit under a neon-spangled tree, I can't super follow what Sheaffer's saying about routers feeding MIDI signals to 128 circuits controlling 192 transformers (don't quote me). But it all sounds vaguely epiphanic because of the long loop of dewy space-disco that plays behind our entire conversation. It was created by Joe Caterinicchio, who also designed five other sound beds in different genres that are keyed to different patterns in the light sculpture.
But you can also play keyboards, drum pads, or a theremin to add sound and change the light, creating a complex, exciting interplay between pattern and chaos. Fridays and Sundays are the best nights to try it (register on the Dix Park website), while on Saturdays, local musicians such as Missy Thangs, David Mueller, and Sunset Palette give experimental concerts with the setup.
"We're trying to do more artwork that's experiential, interactive, performative, and temporary," says Kelly McChesney, the former Lump director and current Raleigh public art director, who is thinking outside of the mural. "This is the first of many projects like this you'll see, both around the city and in Dix Park."
"I really want to take this on the road, which will be a lot of fun because of the role regional artists can play," Sheaffer adds. "Last night, when there wasn't even music, everybody was exactly like bugs, drawn from all directions, gathering around the fence and just looking up, dead silent. That is a very basic, visceral reaction to light."