Stained glass reached its peak in the 12th Century and it’s been downhill since then. Perhaps stained glass is an odd medium to choose if one wishes to participate in the world of contemporary fine art — and indeed, it is! Yet, I found it altogether irresistible.
Although I went to art school to study painting, I knew almost instantly when I tried stained glass that it was what I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. Why? Unlike most raw materials, glass is extremely attractive before the artist ever touches it. I found I like to really manipulate it, stretch it, and transform and distort it in unnatural ways. I like to see what possibilities lie in mating difficult emotional ideas with sensuous but cruel materials. I like a lot of resistance. I like cold, hard, sharp, vicious stuff to fight with — I dislike compliance! Perhaps I want to punish it for being so pretty when I sometimes feel so ugly.
I also felt “in sync” with glass. When I was a painter, I painted fast and furiously and ultimately threw everything out. This didn’t happen with glass because it was so labor intensive. The tedium factor and the variety of processes allowed me to focus and concentrate. By the time I managed to do something to the glass, I had developed feelings of attachment and was hardly going to throw it away.
Without launching into the full technical explanation, I would describe my process as deriving almost entirely from traditional techniques used for centuries. The imagery is predominantly engraved into layers of glass; only the black and yellow are painted and fired on in a kiln. The pieces are soldered together in a copper foil and lead matrix.
Much of my work is improvised and made without prior plans or sketches. Nothing is more inhibiting than the pressure to come up with some Brilliant Artistic Idea — I do a lot of doodling in front of the TV or at meetings, and this distraction frees me to mess up. All my best work seems to result from accidents and mistakes.
I don’t have clear narratives in mind and I am trying to be deliberately vague, but with hindsight I can say a few things about the subject of my work. Of course, as I have said, the glass is part of that. I found the beauty of glass to be the perfect counterpoint to ugly and difficult subjects. A radiant, transparent, glowing figure is not the same as a picture of a figure (which reflects light). It’s a blatant reference to holiness or some type of “supernatural” state of being. In terms of my figures, although they are intended to be ordinary people doing ordinary things, I see them as having much in common with the old medieval windows of saints and martyrs.
They seem to be caught in a transitional moment when despair becomes hope or darkness becomes inspiration. They seem poised between the threshold of everyday reality and epiphany, caught between tragedy and comedy.
It seems my work is centered on the idea of transforming the wretched into the beautiful in theme as well as design. For me, this means taking what is typically negative — say, unspeakable grief, unbearable sentimentality, or nerve-wracking ambivalence, and representing it in such a way that it is inviting and safe to contemplate and captivating to observe (to avoid ending with preposition). I am at one with those who believe art is a way of feeling one’s feelings in a deeper, more poignant way.
Medieval windows sought to confer inspiration and enlightenment to those who would see it. Beholding a stained glass window can enable, encourage, and literally enact the process of being filled with light. It sounds like some kind of preternatural phenomenon, but it’s a physical fact. While one is busy identifying and empathizing with the image, one also physically experiences the warming, filling sensations of light. It’s so persuasive not because the pictures are convincing narratives but because the colors are overwhelming and the light is sublime… and, by golly, it’s coming from inside you, it’s part of you.
How long does it take to make one of your windows?
On average, about two or three months. If I didn’t change my mind, it would go a lot faster. To remake one would only take about a month.
How are your windows made?
The glass I use the most of is a type of stained glass called “flash glass.” Flash glass is a type of handmade glass with a paper-thin veneer of intense color.
I use a regular steel wheel cutter and I also use the standard stained glass equipment of a grozing and running pliers. I do have a ring saw, which is essentially a jig saw, for the really wacky cuts. After the glass is cut, I grind ALL the edges on a router-type grinder.
The next step is to do any necessary sandblasting . Sandblasting is a process by which one can remove the flash, or colored, layer. The glass is usually stage blasted — meaning I take different amounts of color off in stages. After sandblasting, sometimes I engrave smaller details with a flex shaft. Lately, I have been filing into the flash with diamond files; this makes very beautiful tonal variations in the color.
The next step is painting with fire on enamel. The only color I use is black. I paint it on and fire it (like a ceramic glaze) at 1250˚ F. I usually do two to three firings per piece of glass, as that is the best way to get rich blacks and tonal variation. After the firings are all done, I get a little additional color with thin washes of yellow or carmine transparent oil paint. This is all the paint I use — all the other color is the flash glass.
One reason there is a lot of color in each section of my pictures is that the flash glass is layered — sometimes up to five pieces deep. Some of the faces I’ve made have used a layer of blue on clear flash, a layer of brown on clear, pink on clear, and red on clear.
Once all the parts are done for a window, I assemble the piece using copper foil. In the layered areas, I use really, really FAT copper foil (and for this reason, using lead would be impossible — although I have been taught how, and almost all my work from before 1990 IS leaded). Then I solder the thing together.
Do you do commissions?
Where can I see your work?
I exhibit the work at Claire Oliver Gallery.
513 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001 / Tel: 212.929.5949
Also, my work is represented in some public collections — check my resume for locations.
Is your work craft or art?
Do you teach classes or workshops?
I teach at University of the Arts in Philadelphia in the Crafts Department. I occasionally do teach stained glass workshops elsewhere, but not often. If you are interested, check my blog.
Do you need an assistant or intern?
If I am looking for help, I will post on my blog.
Why is your work so depressing and negative?
People often tend to focus on the subject matter and many times I have been called to task for its “negativity” or “difficulty.” Personally, I don’t find my work negative or difficult at all. But since it gets brought up a lot, here’re my thoughts on the matter. In the January 17, 2005, “Happiness” issue of Time Magazine, they had an essay called “The Art of Unhappiness” by James Poniewozik, which contained the following passage:
“What we forget … is that happiness is more than pleasure sans pain. The things that bring us the greatest joy carry the greatest potential for disappointment. Today, surrounded by promises of easy happiness, we need someone to tell us that it is O.K. not to be happy, that sadness makes happiness deeper.”
I want to be that someone!