BALTIMORE — If you ask her, how she started making neon lights was a happy accident.
Selena Carter was working in the Built Environment Applied Research Lab at Morgan State University, learning how to laser cut plywood. One day, she came across a piece of slime green-colored fluorescent acrylic in the lab and started thinking about how something like that would look lit up.
After several Amazon purchases, trips to Home Depot, broad discussions about electricity with her father, and a lot of experimenting, she made her first neon sign. It took almost a year and many more signs after that to perfect her practice, she said.
The Baltimore native who grew up in the Mondawmin area had no idea this newfound hobby was setting her on the path of entrepreneurship. She also never dreamed she would have fans — more than 22,000 followers on Instagram and more than 21,000 on Twitter.
“You never know what people like from you until you show them what you do,” Carter said.
Carter uses a combination of laser and acrylic cutting, designing, electrical wires and more to make special-order neon light signs for customers, and she created a master class to teach others how to make them, too. Carter’s neon signs light up several Baltimore businesses. A bright white “pinky’s up” sign sits in Cuples Tea House on North Howard Street. A neon pink, Gothic font sign spelling out “status” illuminates Status Studio on Greenmount Avenue. Carter also created a large “The Future is Creamy” sign and a few others for an ice cream spot in Nebraska.
Carter was waiting tables at The Cheesecake Factory before she began experimenting with neon. She didn’t care for waiting tables at all and much of her shift she spent jotting down to-dos that had nothing to do with waitressing and everything to do with getting out and doing other things. Carter was plotting, she said, a way to get out of the food industry. She ended a shift at The Cheesecake Factory in 2019 and never went back.
That same year, she posted her first neon sign, which spelled out her name, on Twitter. People loved it and her post received more than 15,000 likes and dozens of comments. She immediately started taking orders to make signs for others and built a website. Originally, her brand was called Design House 1129, but she later changed it to By Selena Carter.
Carter decided she wanted to share what she knows and teach others, she said, because she’s truly come a long way. She remembers wishing there were more opportunities for her to learn when she was figuring out soldering irons, electrical wire, brackets and other aspects of making neon lights.
During the pandemic, Carter created the master class to share resources with others and find a way to further monetize her new talent. People who purchase the virtual class, which costs $100, get one-on-one video tutorials from Carter and a detailed list of supplies with links for where to buy them. They’re also able to join her private Facebook page to talk about the class and share things they’ve created.
Nasir Ali, owner of the Bmore Creative Instagram page, purchased Carter’s master class in July. As an art teacher in Baltimore County schools, he’s a big supporter of looking for ways to express his creativity. He also appreciated Carter’s thorough approach and willingness to share what she knows.
“It was really good seeing someone doing their own thing, but also giving back,” Ali said.
Carter always had an artsy and creative side, she said. They’re qualities she wishes her parents had invested in more. But they stressed the traditional route of attending a good high school — Western High School in Baltimore — and then moving onto college at Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning. Her interest in architecture and interior design came from her father, a contractor. He would take her to his project sites and she remembers how much work he put into his developments.
Carter said her time spent in the BEAR Lab at Morgan inspired her to create new things because she was around other creators.
Carter tells her students that making neon lights takes practice and consistency. Her creations may come across as easy to construct on social media, but there were moments when she wanted to give up and sat on her kitchen countertop discouraged because a light fell apart or wouldn’t turn on.
And, those were just the technical difficulties.
Carter, 27, needed to find a balance between school, a thriving business and taking care of her 6-year-old son. She decided to take a break from Morgan once her son started grade school, but plans to go back someday. Carter has about a year left to get her degree, she said, and she wants her portfolio to be “top-notch” by the time she graduates. Outside of school, though, she’s still contributing to her portfolio.
Carter also took a mental vacation for six months this past year to recharge, reflect and come back better. She had major successes, but she was working so much she wasn’t taking it all in.
“I told myself, ’If you don’t take a break, everything’s gonna fall apart,’” she said.
She officially came back this summer, renting a space at Open Works. Carter wants to create and teach another master class and eventually expand her neon light business. Baltimore has given her a lot of love and support but she could see herself venturing to another state to expand.
There are ways to give back and be a positive catalyst for change in the city beyond being present, she said. Carter would also like to immerse herself in other artistry, like upholstery and interior design.
“I’m a person that’s gonna live a lot of different lives,” Carter said.