Living the Dream: Zach Nafziger, Artist

Zachary Nafziger ZN stained glass
Zachary Nafziger, stained-glass artist and entrepreneur, is creating his own success story, one project at a time

Zachary Nafziger is a stained-glass artist in my town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. He was recently laid off from his corporate job as a Post Production Lead from Rosetta Stone, but transitioned almost seamlessly into making stained glass windows and artworks. I met him at his downtown studio at Larkin Arts to ask him how he did it.

Q: How long have you been doing this? What inspired you to get started? Why stained glass and not some other medium?

A: I’m generally a studio artist, so I’ve done anything that’s hands-on, from painting to ceramics to sculpture. I’ve been doing stained glass for about twenty years; I started when I was 16 in high school. I was always artsy-minded and I tried about everything. Stained glass related to me best; it has let me have more say in color and output. It was the one medium that connected with me personally and I stuck with it.

Q: I know that you consider yourself more of an artist and not a hobbyist or someone who makes stained glass items with the goal of selling them, like arts and crafts. What’s the difference, to you?

A: Stained glass is overused as a crafty-suction-cup-type art. But I traveled through Europe and stuff with my parents and I was never attracted to the suction-cup art. I was attracted to the cathedrals, the things by Marc Chagall, the things on a grander scale. I wanted to make art that has a purpose, art that makes people think.

Zachary Nafziger ZN stained glass Starry Night Harrisonburg Virginia
Zach’s latest project, a recreation of Starry Night

Everything that I make is strictly mine, or a combination of what the client imagines with my artistic input when it’s a commission. Everything starts as a full-scale, hand-drawn design. I feel like the crafty people are more about mass production and they lack creativity. I argue with people like that. I have people who say, “That’s a great design! Where did you find it?” My belief is that with a little time and effort, anyone can make a design. It comes down to doing the work. It’s like going into a big gallery and seeing a Jackson Pollack and thinking, “Oh, I could do that.” Yes, you could, but you need to take that risk that comes with creating something unique and original.
I really like this story about Picasso when it comes to explaining the creative process: He’s sitting in a bar, and this young woman comes in and says, “Hey, you’re Pablo Picasso! Can you draw me something?” and he said, “Sure.” And he quickly sketched something and gave it to her and said, “That will be $10,000.” And she said, “What! $10,000? But that only took you a minute to draw!” And he said,”Yeah, but it took me a lifetime to learn how to draw like that.”

Q: You were laid off recently, but at the same time, your stained glass business picked up. How did you do it? Are you going to be able to continue making art for a living?

A: I signed a year lease on my studio and feel this is my opportunity to pursue my lifelong dream as a stained glass artist, so it’s all or nothing. I like this method of doing things, full speed and diving in. It’s hard to commit myself to art if I’m looking for another full-time job, I need to believe art is my full-time job.

zachary nafziger butterfly stained glass
One of Zach’s latest creations

My current studio is located in the heart of downtown Harrisonburg at Larkin Arts. A married couple, Scott Whitten and Valerie Smith, run the studio and our paths have crossed during many art events in the area. They posted two openings for studio space and I never hesitated. I knew that I couldn’t get the specific audience I needed sitting at home doing this, but I knew I could get them through Larkin.

There are many events that are obvious opportunities for moving forward in your life. Doubt can destroy those chances when you don’t take that leap of faith.  Doubt never crossed my mind, I reacted immediately with the mindset “I can do this and I can ride this wave until it’s done.” The first four months have been a great predictor. It’s like any sales commission job. You don’t have the luxury of a steady paycheck, it’s based on the amount of sales, and you just have to keep working. I know if I slow down, I might go bankrupt, but if I keep working I can make it. Granted, I’m not making the same money, but the overall satisfaction of every aspect of my life has greatly increased and that doesn’t have a monetary value.

Q: I know a lot of people out there who are considering major transitions put it off until “the time is right.” Do you think you would have eventually quit your job to pursue stained glass full time, or was getting laid off what got you motivated?

A: Getting laid off from Rosetta Stone is what motivated me. I could have done it years ago, but there was always something that kept me there. There are always more reasons not to take a chance, doubt being the biggest factor. But even though it’s always been my dream, I can’t say I would have done it if I hadn’t gotten laid off.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone who hasn’t made the leap into living the life they want just yet? 

A: Do it. Go for it. Take the risk. It’s always a big chance, but if it’s something you feel that dedicated to, that should be enough motivation to not let it always be just a dream. It’s a whole different world to be self-employed just because everything you do is a challenge.

Want to see more of Zach’s beautiful artwork? Check out his Facebook page to see what he’s working on–and what’s for sale!  

(None of these links are affiliate links, btw…I just dig his work and respect his mission.)

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