It all starts with a full-scale Sharpie drawing – black lines curving around one another, mapping out designs up to several feet in width. Then, stained glass artist Zac Nafziger ‘01 picks out the colored pieces as he goes: cutting them, grinding down the edges, and wrapping them in copper foil. Once the whole piece is assembled, he brushes on a light coat of “flux,” which facilitates the metals bonding, and solders the joints with a lead and tin alloy.
“I like to think of it more as a painter’s palette,” Nafziger said. While some glass artists predetermine the exact colors they’ll use, in a color-by-number style, Nafziger makes creative use of his shelves upon shelves of colored glass — the entire inventory of a Kentucky glass shop that he bought several years ago. “I’ve got access to all of this, I’m going to use it. And that’s why some of these pieces come out more colorful than if it was planned out, because I’m just determining what best fits.”
Installation inspired by community interactions
Nafziger recently made a piece for the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC) in Harrisonburg – a vast, 6-foot by 18-foot window in undulating shades of blue that took him around 500 hours to create. “Ripple” was installed in April of this year in the new Transitional Care Center in the Oak Lea building.
Nafziger said he was inspired by “the community involvement behind it … the idea for that was these big drops that all connected into one big ripple through the piece, through both the gradient of color used and the design itself. And so it sort of symbolized all the interactions that we have on a daily basis affects the next person.”
The artwork, which provides colorful decor to a renovated dining area called The Grill, has been well-received, said Les Helmuth ’78, executive director of the VMRC Foundation.
“VMRC was looking for an original piece of art that reflected our values, mission and vision – and, honored all the donors who contributed to our most recent capital campaign … Zac’s piece absolutely exceeded our expectations.”
‘Playing’ with light
The studio where all the magic happens is in a 200-square-foot shed at Nafziger’s home in Weyers Cave. For the past seven years, Nafziger rented spaces at the Spitzer Art Center and Larkin Arts in Harrisonburg. Just two weeks after moving in, the walls are filled with finished works, pieces still in progress, and tons of glass sheets organized by color and size.
It takes him, on average, a month to design a piece with the client and a few weeks to build it. With some of his works, like the one in the prayer room at Community Mennonite Church, a large group of stakeholders will brainstorm ideas that Nafziger distills into an image.
“What I ended up doing was using those ideas and breaking it down into what they meant,” Nafziger explained. “The general idea was either a blessing or a cleansing. What I came up with was hands with water pouring out of it, so it became much more abstract.”
Nafziger has been working with stained glass since he took an independent study as a student at Eastern Mennonite High School. He then attended the Savannah College of Art and Design and Eastern Mennonite University. Though he liked sculpture and other forms of three-dimensional design, he says “the medium of glass really stuck with me, and was more relatable than anything else … there’s something about the light, being able to play with light that was much more appealing.”
“Being self-employed, I’m everything from janitorial services to CEO,” Nafziger said.
His artwork has attracted a number of accolades over the years, including the Popular Choice Award in VMRC’s 2017 Juried Art Exhibition and the Best of the Valley: Fine Artist award, from Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record in 2018. He was also a featured artist in this fall’s quarterly magazine of the Stained Glass Association of America.
Nafziger was among the artists commissioned for Eastern Mennonite University’s Centennial art installation. “10x10x100” featured 100 new works from each of the five artists, with each piece measuring 10 by 10 inches.
Besides commissioned and personal work, Nafziger has been making fantastical custom pieces for the Red Wing Roots music festival for the last six years. He finds stringed instrument frames that are broken beyond repair, and creates a stained-glass “face” that sits over the top of color-changing LED lights inside the body of the fiddle, or baby cello, or guitar.
“It’s not something I normally make,” Nafziger said. “It’s a fun extra project I get to do.”
View more of Zachary Nafziger’s work on Facebook at ZN Stained Glass. Those interested in commissioning artwork can reach Nafziger at (540) 421-0313 or email@example.com.