ABOUT – Bill Nagengast, Potter
In 1949, when I was a year old, I survived the world-wide Polio Pandemic of the 1940s and 1950s, when over half a million people per year were paralyzed or died from this deadly virus. As I grew up and saw others far worse off, I felt very fortunate that I only lost the use of my left arm from this disease, but could still walk, run and play like any normal kid.
I grew up the oldest of seven children and wasn’t treated specially. Since I grew up with just one arm, doing everything ‘one-handed’ came naturally. If I wanted to do something, I just did it. In grade school I was a huge fan of the NY Yankees and played ‘street baseball’ with my neighborhood buddies in New Jersey. I didn’t feel handicapped and wasn’t treated like a cripple. I was just a normal kid from New Jersey who wanted to grow up and be a baseball star like my hero, Mickey Mantle.
I went to Central Michigan University totally unsure of my career path. After eight semesters of changing my degree every semester, I managed to have enough credits to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree with a dual major in Physics & Chemistry and a Secondary Education teaching degree. Along the way I discovered pottery as a hobby at the student art center. Between technical courses I was able to take some pottery and art classes and realized I had some talent, especially on the potter’s wheel.
Making pottery has always been immensely satisfying to me. My tedious summer jobs in Testing Labs convinced me that Chemistry wasn’t the career I wanted, so I changed my degree path yet again. I switched my major to Art and after a few years obtained a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s degree in art and secondary education. Some would say that I stayed in college so long because I just didn’t want to get a real job. They might not be wrong!
APPLE LANE POTTERY
Having no more degrees to pursue, I finally graduated college in 1973. My dad offered to let me use an old sheep barn he had on our family’s old McIntosh apple orchard. The trees were planted back in 1911 and it was called Apple Lane Farm, so I named my studio Apple Lane Pottery. For the next 12 years I was a full-time production potter, making a living selling my work at street art & craft fairs throughout central and eastern U.S. This meant making, by hand, thousands of pots per year!
Gas-fired kilns allowed me to test and experiment with different air-gas mixtures to get some very bright and colorful glazes. Called reduction firing, the potter reduces the air flow to the gas burners which creates an oxygen starved mass of flame in the kiln. This brings out different colors in the glaze.
Though I still didn’t want a career as a chemist, I now realized my technical education was extremely useful. My knowledge of chemistry and physics allowed me to formulate, systematically test and develop a full line of my own porcelain high-fire glazes. Pottery is an art form where aesthetics and technology meet.
SUCCESS & TRAGEDY
I enjoyed making a living as a potter, traveling thousands of miles a year to attend dozens of street art fairs in great cities such as Ann Arbor, Chicago and Miami. But a potter’s livelihood is built around fire, and with flame there has been tragedy - two major studio fires and a gas kiln explosion. After my second studio was gone and in ashes, I had to make a career change and in Detroit that meant getting an automotive job, where I was again able to use the technical part of my college education, now for the art form of the automobile.
One of my first automotive jobs was in the Design Studios of General Motors (GM), working on their future models. I was hired to create technical drawings of car parts. I learned to design car parts that fit how a human body sat in a seat, how it drove a car, turned a steering wheel and opened car doors easily. I learned to study how the human body worked and then made car parts that fit a person comfortably. This was a major change in my viewpoint as a designer and as a potter. I later incorporated this design philosophy into my work as a potter.
CLAY at WORK and HOME
I remember how astounded I was to see that GM actually made a life-sized version of every future car from a huge block of clay. These GM studio guys were not potters, but they sure were clay guys, and had all the potter’s tools I used as they carved, trimmed, shaped and formed a complete vehicle. The model would then be spray painted, making it appear like a real car. I felt at home in the GM studios. And - even though I left my pottery studio for the day-job of an engineer, I maintained my work as a potter in my off time. I even managed to do a few street art fairs every year.
LIGHTING, PATENTS & POTTERY
In 1985 I received an exciting job offer to engineer headlights and taillights for General Motors. New lights were being developed and with my physics degree I thought I might be able to add to this development. Here my art background helped me a great deal. The drawing skills I possessed allowed me to visualize and sketch parts before creating the formal layout and design. I was often able to see in my mind how a single part could be created to do the same thing - instead of using several.
Over the next 20 years I was awarded over 20 Patents and saved GM over $100 million with my designs for fewer and simpler parts.This job required a move to Anderson, Indiana, near Indianapolis, where my wife and I bought a farm on the outskirts of town. My wife built a barn and bought a horse. I built a pottery studio and bought a kiln. Together we built a house. I continued working as an engineer in lighting during the day and was a potter at night. I no longer had the pressure of making pottery for the next art fair, which gave me more freedom in the studio.
CHEMISTRY & CRYSTALLINE GLAZES – The Technology of Gemstones
After many years in the automotive industry, I retired, allowing me to spend more time on my first love – pottery. And with no day-to-day job, we decided to escape the dreary Indiana winters and started spending the winter months in Florida, officially becoming snowbirds. Unfortunately, I did not have a studio in Florida, so I had to find another way to create pottery.
It was a joy to discover the Dunedin Fine Art Center (DFAC), on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida. I signed up for a class to learn more about crystalline glazes. I had spent a summer in college in 1972 learning this complex and unique glaze technique, and always wanted to pursue it further. There I was: 74 years old, and excited about the opportunity to go back to school on a new career path.
I’ve taken some wonderful DFAC classes with Glenn Woods and attended several crystalline workshops hosted by Glen at the DFAC. Focusing on crystalline glazes, Glenn has invited in the best of the best, including Holly McKeen, Andy Boswell, Robert Weiss as well as Jose Maria Mariscal who traveled all the way from Spain.
GEMSTONES – Mineral Crystals
Some background: Below us, deep in the earth, are the forces of nature at work, operating at extreme temperatures to produce the stunning mineral crystals we call rubies and sapphires. Instead of taking hundreds of years, potters now fire special glaze mixtures in a computer-controlled kiln and replicate this natural mineral crystal forming process in their studios with crystalline glazes.
Again, my chemistry background came into play as I have used this knowledge to understand these unusual glaze formulations and complex firing techniques. With modern computer programming technology applied to control kiln firings, the crystalline glaze firing process has been dramatically improved to closely replicate the mineral crystal forming processes of nature. But even with this application of new technology, the outcome is uncertain yet always exciting. And it is just as we discover in nature. The forces that form crystals result in the creation of unique and very different crystals with every firing.
RESEARCH - PUSHING THE LIMITS
Though crystalline glazes were first discovered over 100 years ago, the technological advances of this century show that we are still in the early stages of crystalline glaze developments. Pushing crystalline firing technology into new territory increases failures, but there is so much yet to be discovered. And - it will only be found by continuous testing and research of kilns, glazes and innovative (but unproven) firing programs.
This development strategy pushes the limits of conventional firings in a constructive manner that will ultimately result in the simulation of the many different gemstone-forming processes of nature in the potter’s kiln.
The result of this new methodology are kiln firings with crystalline glazes that resemble the striking gem-like sparkle of a jeweled vault. The crystals are amazingly captivating glazes, with an unmatched visual appeal and – even with the occasional failure, there are always new pathways revealed for continued exploration of new crystal developments. I am excited to use my golden years as a potter to push these boundaries.
Personal: Born in Englewood, NJ (1948)
Eagle Scout Award (1963)
Education: Central Michigan University (1966 – 1973)
B.S. Physics/Chemistry (Double Major)
B.A. Art/Secondary Education
M.A. Art/Secondary Education
Pottery: Marguerite Wildenhain, Pond Farm Pottery, Summer (1968)
Started Apple Lane Pottery (1973)
Glenn Woods, Crystalline Glazes, Dunedin Fine Art Center DFAC (2022-present)
Holly McKeen, DFAC Crystalline Glaze Workshop (2022)
Andy Boswell, DFAC Crystalline Glaze Workshop (2022)
Jose Mariscal Paneque, DFAC Crystalline Glaze Workshop (2023)
Shows: Full time professional potter, 1973 – 1984 with 25 Shows (on average) per year, some of which included the following:
Olde Town Art Fair (Chicago, Illinois)
Ann Arbor Street Art Fair (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
Los Olas Art Fair (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida)
Coconut Grove Art Fair (Miami)
Art on the Square (Madison, Wisconsin)
Plaza Art Fair (Kansas City)
Lakefront Festival of Art (Milwaukee)
Shadyside Art Festival (Pittsburgh)
Charlevoix Art Fair (Charlevoix)
Penrod Festival of Arts (Indianapolis)
Employment: Co-founded Continental Inc. (1984 -2018)
Business focus: Automotive Exterior Lighting, New Product
Development, Engineering, Quality Engineering,
Manufacturing Design, Research & Development
Personally awarded over 30 Patents, Intellectual Property Disclosures,Trademarks, Copyrights. Value Engineering (Cost Savings, generated for General Motors: over $100 million)
Co-Founded Solas Ray Lighting (2006)
Business focus: Development, manufacturing and sales of new LED Commercial Lighting Products (grew to include over 70 major U.S. Regional Sales Rep. Agencies)
Retired from Solas Ray Lighting & Continental Inc. (2018)
Personal Interests: Porcelain Studio Pottery (1973-present)
Long distance bicycling
One-arm golf tournaments
Memberships: The Artisans and Artisans Guild (Ann Arbor)
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)
North American One-Armed Golfer Association
Robert Weiss, crystalline glaze potter (2022)