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.)

Living the Dream: Josh Horton – Juggler

Josh Horton - Juggler
Josh Horton – Juggler, performing at a halftime show earlier this year

When I told Josh Horton that I wanted to interview him for the Living the Dream series, he laughed. “That’s my general response when someone asks me how I’m doing,” he said. “I never say I’m good or all right. I say, “I’m living the dream.”” And by all accounts he is. The 23 year old is paid to juggle professionally, a skill he learned as a young participant in Illinois State University’s Junior Gamma Phi Circus. After winning a high school talent show, he had the opportunity to develop his talents in competition with the best jugglers in the world. When he realized he wanted to juggle for a living, he changed his major to entrepreneurial studies and leveraged his skill as a juggler into a business as a performer.

Q: How much time do you spend juggling these days? Do you have to put in a lot of practice time? 

 A: When I was in high-school and college, I was practicing about four hours every single day. But now that I’ve focused on juggling as a career, I’ve taken it down to to about four hours a week. That’s partly because I’m not competing anymore. Once you get to a certain level practice gets more frustrating because the better you get, the slower you are to progress because everything you’re trying is at such a different level. And part of it is having pains like shoulder, neck, and back pains, so I had to scale back because of that.

Q: How competitive is the world of juggling? How do you get the word out and differentiate yourself from other people with similar talents?

A: The world of juggling can be competitive depending on what market you are pursuing and where you live. The thing is, it’s not really about skill, it’s more about how well you’re able to market yourself. After that, it comes down to your likeability, your stage presence, and your comedy. I focus a lot on my internet marketing and that brings people to me. When creating my website I focused on SEO so that I show high on Google and other search engines. There are also certain websites where I pay to be listed and people see my profile. I don’t do too much cold-calling except for the halftime shows, but now I have an agency that knows who I am and they book me stuff.

Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Kenny (The Jet) Smith discuss a clip of Josh’s halftime performance for the LA Lakers playoff game.

Q: What’s the hardest part of your job? 

A: The hardest part is having nothing to do sometimes. No one is hiring a juggler seven days a week. And I’m at a point in my career where charge enough per show so that I can make a living only performing once a week. Sometimes it is more, but often it is less. It’s important to learn how to use the down time effectively and productively.

Q: Do you see yourself doing this as a lifelong career? Where would you like to be in the next couple of years?

A: I don’t want to travel a lot when I’m older, more of a part time thing as I get older, maybe I can start doing some local things. I’m not exactly sure what the plan is, but I don’t want to be struggling at 60 to be a juggler. I want to keep gaining knowledge and learning about the world.

Josh Horton juggling basketballs during a halftime performanceQ: What advice would you give to somebody who’s interested in pursuing juggling or entertaining professionally? What are the ups and downs?

A: I have a very strong opinion that you need to look at it as a business. It’s called “show business,” and “business” is a longer word than “show:” You have to work on business more than your show. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if no one can find you, if you’re not marketing yourself in a way that makes you seem as good as you are, then all the hours you’ve spent perfecting your skill are wasted. I have a lot of friends who are jugglers, even better than me, but I’m more successful than they are because they just don’t get it.

Q: Any words of advice for those of folks still waiting on their big breaks?

A: I think you should do what makes you happy and makes you comfortable. If you are totally happy with playing piano in your living room and going to your accounting job and getting your paycheck every week, then do that, but if you want to do your hobby, skill or passion full-time, then go for it. Just do it in a smart way.

For more photos and videos of Josh performing, visit or his Facebook page

Living the Dream: The Winemaker

Lee Hartman, young winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard in Virginia
Lee Hartman, winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard in Virginia, with some of his award-winning wines

Lee Hartman is the young winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. He oversees production of the winery’s fifteen wines, including planting and growing the vines, harvesting and crushing the fruit, and making decisions at every key point of the wine’s evolution and maturation. He took some time out from bottling on a rainy day to tell me how much he loves his job, from growing the vines to doing inventory.

Q: How did you get into winemaking? What first interested you?
A: First my family planted about 130 vines back in 2002, and from that we gained enough knowledge to get ourselves into a lot of trouble. We thought, “We can totally do this, let’s plant 9000 vines!” Then we started buying a ton of grapes from this person and that person, and that went well. Meanwhile, I wanted to move to Europe. I have a degree in history and I’ve always loved travel, so I thought I might go be a tour guide for a few years. My dad said “Well, while you’re figuring that out, how about you help me plant some vines?” Fortunately, I fell into farming and winemaking. And when you make wine, you realize that this clear bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or this inky bottle of Petit Verdot is nothing but dirt and water and sunlight and it’s amazing. I know I’m not the only one to have ever had that thought, but it was an “aha moment” that grabbed me.

Continue reading “Living the Dream: The Winemaker”

Living the Dream: The Zookeeper

A lioness at the safari park
One of Amanda’s work-friends

Here’s the first interview for my Amateur Vagrant’s Living the Dream series. I interviewed Amanda Sorenson, my adorable cousin and a badass zookeeper. She spends her days outside, feeding and caring for the herds of animals at the safari park where she works. Does that sound like your kind of dream job? Read on and see if it’s for you! 

Q: Did you always want to be a zookeeper? What prepared you for this experience?

A: I always wanted to work with animals, but when I was in the ninth grade my mom found this program at the zoo near my house called the Keeper Aide program and I got to follow the keepers around and help with the animals. It was once-a-week, year-round during high school and then during breaks from college, but I would go in more often. It was all volunteer. Then I took an unpaid internship at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh during the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college and that was full-time. I worked with the bird show there. We had to do all the diet prep and things like that, so for raptors we would cut up the mice and chicks and mealworms and stuff like that. We cleaned their enclosures, brought them down to the stage and helped from behind the scenes, like releasing the birds and catching them back.

Continue reading “Living the Dream: The Zookeeper”

Living the dream?

any time spent being unhappy is wasted

Amateur Vagrant is collecting life stories for a new series called Living the Dream. This is a collection of Q&As with people who are doing what they want to do with their lives, professional or personal. The stories are inspiring as well as informative, with insight on what steps you need to take next on your own path toward your goals.

So far, I’ve talked to a zookeeper, a winemaker, and a pair of journalists who live on a houseboat, but if you’ve recently scored that office job you’ve been trying for and you love your rowhouse in the suburbs and the minivan parked outside, I still want to talk to you about how you got there and how much you enjoy it. Did you finally get up the courage to quit your life-sucking job and now you aren’t sure what’s next? I can’t wait to hear from you, either!

If you or someone you know is doing what they always wanted to do, being who they always wanted to be, or living where they always wanted to live (or all three!) get in touch with me at Rae[at] or on Twitter @AmateurVagrant and tell me how you’re living the dream!

My mom the undergrad

My mom is currently a non-traditional student pursuing a degree in social work. She didn’t have the opportunity to get a higher education until a few years ago, but growing up, she always told us that we would go to college and take advantage of the opportunities that she never had. We’re all so proud of her, but after so many years spent waiting on all of us, going to school has been a real change for her.

My mom, Sherri, in Cambodia


  • When did you start going to college?

I started college in September 2006 after the end of a twenty-five-year marriage.

  • Why did you start going to college?

I had originally thought that I wanted to become a teacher and that this was my opportunity. The real reason I started school, though, was to be an example to my children, especially my daughters. I wanted them to know that we are strong women and that we may get knocked down, but we get up and brush ourselves off. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do whatever I wanted to after losing myself in my marriage. I was forty-six at the time and I knew I didn’t want to hold a minimum wage job all my life. I wanted make my children and myself proud.

  • Why didn’t you go to college on a traditional schedule, like when you were 18?

When I was growing up I was always told that if I wanted to go to college, I would have to do it on my own. I went to my high school counselor and she seemed very disinterested in the whole process. I didn’t know where to turn or who to turn to, so I just put it on the back burner. I had a steady boyfriend at the time and my mom thought he would make a good husband. So I thought, “What the hell?” We got engaged, but one Sunday afternoon we got in a huge argument and the song In the Navy by the Village People came on as I was getting out of his truck. I told him, “That’s it! I’m joining the Navy!” He just laughed and said, “Yeah, right. I dare you.”  That Monday I talked to a recruiter, Tuesday I took the ASVAB [the Navy recruiting test] and I left Thursday morning. We broke up, but I loved the service. I met my ex-husband there and we got serious fast, so I just went the marriage route. It was convenient. Plus, when I was younger not a whole lot of “older people” (over 21) went to college.

  • What are you studying? Why?

I’m studying social work. I’m heading towards my bachelor’s degree and right into my master’s. I first went for teaching, but after I got my associate’s from a two-year college, I transferred to a four-year school. But when I walked in the first day and I looked around and saw all these young faces with dreams in their eyes, I knew that I was in the wrong place before my bottom hit the chair. I guess that as my own four children grew up I got over the need to wipe runny noses and tie wet shoe strings. I left that classroom prepared to withdraw from school altogether. I got in my car and drove around for about thirty minutes and then I called my youngest daughter and told her what I was feeling. She calmly reminded me that I had been mentioning how I wanted to work with our returning vets, so maybe I should talk to someone about studying social work. I thought, “What the hell? It won’t hurt.” I walked into the social work office and I felt like I was home. Everyone was genuine and down-to-earth. Within ninety minutes of walking out of one class, ready to drop out, I walked into a new degree and and a new life. My whole dream now is to be able to work with our returning vets and animals at the same time. I know what the unconditional love and responsibility of an animal can do for someone.

  • What’s your typical school day like? 

I pack my lunch and drinks the night before to save time in the morning because I get up around 5 because my dogs need a good forty-five minute walk. Once I get them back home, I fix myself something to eat, usually eggs and toast. I feed the dogs, let the cats out, get my clothes together, shower, blow dry my hair and get dressed. I take my school bag, lunch bag and whatever odds and ends I think I might need throughout the day. I put the dogs in the car and I take them to my mother’s house, where she dog-sits them for me. I chat with Mom for a few minutes then I drive forty-five minutes to school. I get to school in time for classes that begin between 9 and 11:45. After that, I do an hour at the gym (I’m trying to get ready for a half-marathon in April) and then my second class starts between 1 and 3:45. Then I do another hour at the gym for weight-lifting. I shower and then run to the car to grab whatever I packed the night before to eat. I go to the library and study my Arabic from Rosetta Stone for an hour or so. I have my third and final class from 6-8:45, then I drive back to my mom’s to pick up the dogs, chat for a few more minutes, then I head home. I feed the dogs and walk them for another thirty minutes (this last walk guarantees that I will not get woken up with an emergency “I gotta go” bark). I do the breakfast dishes, check my e-mail, and then crack the books for an hour or so. I am carrying eighteen credits again this semester and there seems to always be a ton of reading and writing I have to do.

Simone, my mom’s rescued pit bull
  •  How has your life changed as a result of the decision to go back to school?

My daughter [ahem!] would not believe this, but I have become more organized out of necessity. I feel good about myself again, especially the two semesters that I made Dean’s List. I remember thinking, “I still can do it!” Of course, sometimes I have to read things two or three times to remember or for them to even make sense to me, but you do what you have to. I feel more involved in life—not only mine, but in other people’s lives, too. If anything, I am learning (emphasis on “learning”) how to listen to other people and accepting that not everyone will think or react to things the same way I do or even how I would expect them to. Going back to school has made me find me again. When you’re a wife and mother of four young children, you seem like the least important person in the mix. Then, BAM! everyone is off and on their own and there you are. Well, here I am!

  • What’s your ultimate goal for going back to school?

My ultimate goal is a personal thing. I want to prove to myself that I can fulfill a dream.  I want to be happy within myself and know that no matter what, I can do it.  I want to be support myself beyond just holding a minimum wage job. I am looking forward to the day that I can honestly help people with the necessities that they need to not only survive, but to live! I want to work with our returning veterans and therapy animals in the hope that they can help each other. I would love to get into the policy changing aspect and see why our governemnt has turned their backs on our returning vets.

  • How do you get along with your classmates?

Actually quite well. I have had a lot of them tell me they wish their moms would go back to school and do something with their lives. We do study groups together and after tests we go out and have a drink at the local hangout. I think a lot of it has to do with the field that I am studying and the fact that it is drilled into us at almost every class that people are people. Older people are just like younger people, only with more life experience.

  • How do you feel you are different from your classmates as a non-traditional student?

Well, I have a hell of a lot more life experience. I have lived all over the world and did things that still amaze me. My writing is more in-depth than a lot of the younger people’s because of my life experiences. To sit in class and listen to how the younger students think they are going to change the whole world with just a degree leaves me shaking my head. I understand (at least I think I do) that change has to come from within and then spread out. I have a bit more responsibility than the others and I am not afraid of being considered “stupid” for asking certain questions—technology is way beyond me in so many ways. It takes me a couple of times to learn how to download things and how to store them in the computer. I also use the dictionary a lot because of all the technical talk. I decided to change to social work in my junior year and a lot of the younger students are already very familiar with the lingo that goes with the profession, so I keep a notebook close by write down the words I don’t know and then I look them up as soon as I get a chance. I also pack a lunch for myself. A lot of the kids [younger students] go through school hungry, which leads to their being tired. I make sure I always have a lunch box full of healthy foods. Eating healthy really helps me concentrate.

  • What have you learned about yourself from this experience?

Damn, I am a strong, independent woman! I have also learned that you have two choices if negativity comes your way: you can write it in stone and carry the heavy weight around for the rest of your life or write it in sand and let the wind blow it away. I’m a good example of that. I have learned that I am smarter than I thought,  though I am still not as organized as I want to be. I like me for who I am, not what other people think I am! There used to be mornings when I would wake up and think “You are fifty-one, your life is half over. What are you trying to prove?” Now most of my mornings start with, “Shit, I am only fifty-one and there is so much more to do! I hope I can get it done!”

What are you learning from the challenges in your life? How do you keep yourself motivated? Paste your favorite motivational quotes if you have any.