Among students, world-renowned ceramic sculptor and Mills College art professor Ron Nagle is known as an unorthodox man who speaks his mind, rocks out in style and occupies himself with his mix of refined and eccentric interests.
In his small office tucked away in the Ceramics building, there are shelves lined with art history books and doo-wop records. Draped over a black fabric couch is a fleece blanket depicting Elvis Presley encircled by electric guitars. Nearby lies a fuzzy white throw pillow that reads “Never do a job half-assed” in pink embroidery.
Even at age 71, Nagle takes pleasure in staying fashionable. Whether he is teaching or working, he dons old pinstriped overalls and powder blue Ed Hardy shoes decorated with American flag bandana-wearing skulls. Sometimes, when he’s feeling semi-formal, he changes into an ash-brown blazer, pink pullover vest and fedora hat. Around his neck are two thin silver chains adorned with various charms, one of which is a tiny red heart symbolizing his wedding anniversary on St. Valentine’s Day.
Nagle, who served as the chair of the studio art department various times, is retiring after 32 years of teaching. He said he hopes to spend more time with his wife and daughter and continue “working, working, working.”
“This is my last semester, so I’m going to kick ass, give it my all and close big,” Nagle said.
Nagle has taught ceramics at Mills since 1978. Since then, he’s also been a graduate adviser and a Graduate Council member. Along with many of his colleagues, he helped create a credible art department for both undergraduate and MFA students.
“I love teaching, it keeps me fresh,” Nagle said. “I learn as much as they do. These are all clichéd answers, but it’s true. I like to talk to students about everything, from music to whatever. They keep me informed.”
He said he finds challenging students’ preconceptions about their artistic abilities to be rewarding.
“Somebody would come in and say, ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body,’ and [I could] show them that they do, by putting them through the assignments and get them to think with their right brain as opposed to their left, trust their intuition, love and be excited about what they’re doing,” Nagle said.
“He helped me rediscover my love of clay,” said sophomore Cayden Coronado, who made miniature sculptures of his sister and himself. “I always make little figures out of clay and such when I was a kid, and he helped me recapture that energy.”
Nagle has also enjoyed “having many, many graduate students go on to become professional artists, head of departments, university [professors], have New York galleries and still continually making [art].”
Nagle finds it exciting to guide students to accomplish so much in the real world outside the college.
“He has taught me so much and made it fun! I feel so lucky to have been at Mills during the Ron years,” said Dana Hemenway, a second-year MFA student and Nagle’s Beginning Ceramics teaching assistant.
Although Nagle loves being a professor and will miss the students, he said many aspects of academia have driven him “absolutely nuts.” He admits he dislikes attending meetings and tends to just draw during those sessions.
“I don’t act like an academic because I’m not one. Let’s say I’m a street rat that got into the backdoor,” Nagle said, feeling that the institution has cut into his time with art and teaching.
He also wishes the College could better represent all students who attend Mills. “There are men who go to this school too,” Nagle said.
Although many people admire his honesty, he has run into trouble for being too frank — often with the administration.
“Some people think of me as being rude or disrespectful. If I don’t agree with someone, if I think there’s something wrong, I’m a loose cannon with a short fuse,” Nagle said.
Marilyn Mary, the art faculty administrative assistant, has been working alongside Nagle since 1975. They are both co-workers and friends. Mary said she admires him for being a “straight shooter.”
“I will miss his visits. He walks into this office a lot singing tunes,” Mary said. “He has humor that plays on words. When he was in his early 20s, he tried out as a stand-up comedian and wasn’t bad at it. You feel good when you’re around Ron.”
Nagle has a long history in the artistic world. Although his venture into clay began in high school, it wasn’t until he studied under the late ceramist Peter Voulkos at UC Berkeley that he began to develop his skill in small-scale, abstract-expressionist ceramic sculptures.
After being inspired by Italian painter Giorgio Morandi’s still-life art and Japanese teacups of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, Nagle almost exclusively concentrated on variations of the cup form. His earthenware pieces are often no more than three inches tall and are overglazed and multi-fired to sustain vibrant colors and textures — an exhaustive process he said he would have no patience for outside the studio.
To get into the zone, he has small rituals: rubbing a framed picture of his old Labrador Sadie, lighting incense and putting on soft music, often the ‘Chinatown‘ movie soundtrack.
“I love to make stuff. Just sitting down and having total peace of mind when I’m working on my small sculptures, cups, whatever it is — nothing like it,” Nagle said.
Nagle wants to shed the title “Mr. Cup,” as he’s known in the art community. For the last six years, he has taken a different artistic path by creating gestural pieces that capture the spirit and intimate details of his drawings. He has been living and working in his hometown of San Francisco.
Nagle has a penchant for giving each sculpture obscure names with pop references, such as the ‘Hob Noblet,’ named after the TV series ‘Strangers with Candy‘s’ bitter character Mr. Noblet. Other names include ‘New Blue LaRue,’ ‘Scrunchabunch‘ and the ‘Knob Job,’ which has been at the Smithsonian American Art Museum since 1982.
Although his focus is ceramics, Nagle is also heavily involved in the music scene as a keyboardist, singer and songwriter. With long-time business partner, friend, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Mathews, Nagle went on to create the recording company Proud Pork Productions. In his home studio, called the Pig Pen, the duo wrote songs that sold millions for recording artists such as The Tubes and Barbara Streisand.
Under Capitol Records in 1979, Mathews and Nagle started the New Wave/pop band the Durocs (named after a pig breed with exceptionally large ears and genitals). The Durocs continued producing for other artists after the label dropped the band. This summer Nagle will be releasing his first solo record since 1978 and will continue to write and record music with Mathews.
For countless students and colleagues of Nagle, it is the end of an era at Mills College.
“I wish for him to do whatever the hell he wants for as long as he wants,” Coronado said.
“He can get very excited,” Mary said. “I would want him to have peace within.”
Nagle’s passion is art and he hopes students continue to explore that passion within themselves.
“It’s been gratifying as hell. The most important thing to me is that [students] still have the energy and passion in creating art and strive to keep that up. It’s very difficult being an artist and having a balanced life,” Nagle said. “I still haven’t figured that one out yet.”