Work in process: In life as in art, glass artist John Nickerson is a student of methodology

By Sarah Kucharski

John Nickerson is a very exacting man. Tall and solidly built, he moves with efficiency, his speech measured and pointed as he explains how he came into being a glassblower.

“I don’t do this to make tons of money. I do this because I can’t stand working for anybody else,” he said.

Growing up in Billings, Mont., Nickerson always was involved in the arts. His high school boasted two full-time art teachers, two theater teachers, three music teachers, and a choir director.

“When I was a kid there, the arts were a big deal,” he said.

Nickerson took his arts education with him upon graduating, joining the Navy where, stationed on an aircraft carrier, he drew cartoons for the ship’s daily newspaper and designed the ship’s cruise book, a yearbook of sorts.

After his time in the service, Nickerson went on to major in art at Montana State University where he studied illustration and graphic design. In the program, junior year two-dimensional medium students were required to take a crafts course. Nickerson signed up for a pottery class, immediately taking to the art form, and switched to majoring in ceramics.

His work with ceramics led to a job in the General Motors body design studio, building full-size models of cars out of paraffin-based clay. The clay was heated to 140 degrees, making it a soupy consistency, which the sculptors spread across wire bases.

“When it cooled to room temperature, because of the paraffin, it became very hard, very hard,” Nickerson said.

Nickerson would carve into the clay giving way to a three-dimensional rendering of designer’s two-dimensional sketches. However, GM’s industry-based town of Detroit and the corporate environment drove Nickerson to search for something else, something more. He went back to school, this time enrolling at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. The college is a one-of-a-kind institution, mixing art, engineering, design and science.

During his first year working toward earning his master’s degree, Nickerson was required to pick up a minor. With graphic design already under his belt, he was looking for something new when he found the college’s glass studio. Studio glass had officially become an arts movement just four years prior in 1963 and was gaining popularity. Nickerson began to study the medium — again taking to it immediately — and the following year was asked to become a teaching assistant in the program.

Nickerson continued teaching after graduation but again hated the sense of conformity required by educational institutions. Seeing other glass artists’ success, he realized he had an opportunity to get out.

“I thought, hell, my work’s as good as that, at least,” he said.

Making the decision to become an artist full-time was a realignment of priorities.

“People who are used to getting a paycheck, once they get used to that, it’s hard for them to get beyond that,” Nickerson said.

He gave himself three years to make it, learned how not to base his life on money, but rather to live off the available income. That, paired with a lifestyle Nickerson describes as having included “mistakes” then trails off about when asked, is at the root of why just now at age 66 Nickerson is a first time homeowner. His name isn’t on the mortgage — not an issue of bad credit, just no credit, he says. Rather it’s his wife — his third wife — who holds the loan.

Prior to moving to Waynesville, Nickerson spent 18 years in Colorado, where real estate prices eventually rose to the point of impracticality, and workshop space became unaffordable. Friends in Cleveland, Ohio, offered to share their studio long enough for Nickerson to figure out what he wanted to do. With a supportive arts community, and an extensive glass art community in particular with nearly 70 such studios across the state, North Carolina was a welcoming place.

Nickerson’s workshop — a medium-sized warehouse space located off Richland Avenue in Waynesville — provides a snapshot of his personality. Just inside the loading door are three old-school, BMW motorcycles — one his, two belonging to friends. A motorcycle junkie since he was 14, Nickerson learned the metal working skills he now uses to assemble some of his largest, most involved pieces from repairing bikes.

Jazz noodles its way out of stereo speakers at a polite, yet definitively audible volume, and the tools of his trade are carefully organized, labeled and tidily put away.

Faced with his 67th birthday this May, and gradually declining eyesight, Nickerson is cognizant of the possibility of his career soon coming to a close.

“I’m not maudlin about it; when it’s time to check out, I’ll check out,” he said. “But whatever statement it is that I’m going to make, now’s the time to make it.”

He runs the glass-melting ovens less frequently these days, choosing instead to spend less time on production work — plates, vases, perfume bottles — and more time on sculptural works. He cuts apart blown glass pieces, polishes them and reassembles them as grand, multi-media works such as the boat-like “Sailing with Don Quixote.” While the works fetch a higher price, they are also a step away from the traditional and more accessible world of blown glass.

“Doing this stuff is a crap shoot, there are no guarantees,” Nickerson said.

And so it is not surprising when he says he most enjoys the process rather than the product.

“I’m a process driven guy,” he said.

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