medieval masters of the 20th century

Enter the office of Charles J. Connick Associates, and you're liable to find its president, Orin Skinner, seated at an old green roll-top desk poring over a copy "Symbolism in Medieval Thought" or Dante's "Inferno." Not particularly light reading, but appropriate for a maker of stained glass windows.

The office itself seems part of a previous era, with cluttered old wooden desks, dingy brick walls, exposed pipes, and even an old sepia photography of the late Mr. Connick. The workers, too, fit the surroundings. Most have been with the company "for a long time," according to Mr. Skinner.Only the work -- ranging from multihued medallions to large windows -- hints at the modern bent that the ancient art is taking.

"Stained glass has a reputation of being a lost art," says Mr. Skinner, looking at some of the medallions hanging in the window. "Actually, it never was lost, simply mislaid."

The studio calls up images of dark caves where elves created beautiful treasures. Most of the cavernous rooms have but a single light bulb for illumination, and nearly all work is done close to windows, where the stained glass can be inspected in natural light. Light could pour into the exhibition room, but its 30 by $:8 foot window is usually covered with black paper or curtains to keep out the conflicting light when stained glass windows are hung there for inspection.

(Sometimes, says Mr. Skinner even the exhibition window isn't large enough to display the completed work. The transsept windows done for the Heinz Memorial Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh, for instance, were approximately 80' tall.)

Since its start in 1910, Connick Associates has been one of the country's foremost creators of stained glass windows. Each one is unique, says Mr. Skinner, adding that it can take anywhere from weeks to years to complete a window. Because of their size and intricacy, for example, the windows for the Princeton University Chapel took two to three years to complete as did the great rose windows at the cathedrals of St. John the Evangelist and St. Patrick in New York.

"Sometimes a group of windows quite readily suggests themes," says Mr. SKinner. "For instance, if you have a group of four windows, we immediately think of the four evangelists, of four prophets. . . . If a church is named St. John, we may think of the apocalyptic theme -- St. John's revelations. But each theme has to be treated in a different manner each time."

Not only are the setting, style of architecture, and light exposure important , says Mr. Skinner, such things as the denomination, and even the mood of the congregation also affect the style of a stained glass window.

Once a theme is chosen, a small-scale color drawing is made showing the window's general color scheme. Then comes a full-scale black-and-white working cartoon from which patterns are cut for the individual pieces of glass.

Most of the handblown glass is made to order in England, Germany, France, says Mr. Skinner, and often contains distinctive variations in color even within a single sheet.

"Blue is the basic color of all fine windows," he says, pointing to a distinctive window with a multitude of blue hues. "It's a quiet color."

The glass is then cut into the jigsaw-like pieces usually with a small handheld steel wheel.

"We cut up the big sheets into little pieces, then put the pieces together into big sheets again," says Mr. Skinner with a chuckle, "It's a vicious circle."

If more detail is needed (the features on a face, say) a mineral pigment is painted on, then the glass is fired in a kiln at about 1,200 degrees F. The pieces are joined with various sizes of lead, the joints soldered, waterproof cement rubbed into the crevices, and voila, a stained glass window.

Some extent, Connick Associates is typical of the tradition-oriented studio. But a new brand of studio is springing up -- small operations dedicated to the art form, but not necessarily caring about the wisdom of the ages.

"In the last ten years the tendency has been towards small one- and two-person studios," says Helen Hickman, president of the Stained Glass Association of America. She adds that in Milwaukee, for instance, where she works, there are half a dozen such studios.

Richard Millard, who has been involved with stained glass for 28 years, is a good example of the new trend. He's worked for large studios, had his own small studio, taught, and now does free-lance designing painting and cartooning for studios in the New York area. He says the move to smaller studios was caused in part by the changing attitudes of churches.

"In the late '60s, after church attendance had fallen off, a reassessment by organized religion caused a bit of a valley when it came to doing new stained glass work. Churches were no longer spending money on stained glass, they were more inclined to address social problems within their parishes. The result was the dissolution of some of the large studios [or operation on a reduced scale[. . . ."

In some ways, he says, this proved to be a blessing.

"There was much greater specialty several years ago. One person just cut patterns, another person just did installation -- now there's a need for more versatile craftsmen than when they had more of a production line situation."

According to Mr. Millard, the Victorian fad that began several years ago, a demand for custom-designed pieces for homes and commercial buildings, and a resurgence of church work have led to a tremendous increase in the number of stained-glass artists.

(Another reason may be the price that good stained glass windows bring. It depends on the location and amount of work being done, says Mrs. Hickman, but stained glass windows can cost up to $200 or $300 per square foot.)

"Years ago I think many people who went into the stained glass business did so because their father or grandfather was in it. . . ." says Mr. Millard. "Nowadays you have people going into it because they recognize the unique properties of stained glass and are very enthusiastic about it."

The problem, he says, is that many people in their enthusiasm go off half-cocked, not fully aware of the limitations of stained glass.

"They make sections that are beautifully designed but structurally weak. Then when the sections collapse, it fosters the view that stained glass is a very fragile material or that it's not going to last too long. But in the last 10 years there have been some designers from the so-called art circles who are quite outstanding, and once they have a greater understanding of the structual problems of the medium they're going to go great guns." Mr. Millard admits he was fortunate at age 16 to be accepted in a four-year apprenticeship program with New York's Rambusch Decorating Company. According to NAomi Mundy, executive secretary for the Stained Glass Association of America, many people now starting out in stained glass are unwilling or unable to spend that amount of time in such a low-paying position.

"The old-timers were willing to work for 50 cents an hour." she says, "but people today just aren't willing to do that."

The SGAA's Stained Glass School in North Adams, Massachusetts, is designed to help fill the gap by teaching the basic principles and techniques of the art.

"In the last 10 or 15 years there's been just a tremendous need for information," says school director Michael Munley. "There aren't many books written especially on technique.

"Traditionally this need for information goes back for centuries. Glass has always been a prestigious field. A craftsman was revered in small villages of Europe, and there was a great amount of secrecy associated with the techniques -- how to mix the paint, etc. For years it was almost impossible to get information, it was almost a sociological phenomenom."

But after seeing the boom in interest and the resulting proliferation of courses, many of which weren't very good, the SGAA decided something had to be done.

"Some people were taking one course in stained glass and then going off and teaching their own course," says Mr. Munley. "There was a tremendous cry from people getting into the field, 'i've taken a course from my teacher and now I know as much as she or he does. What do I do, where do I go now?' In 1977 the association said, 'We've got to do something,' so they got the school going."

Expert stained glass artists teach the eight different two-week workshops for amateurs and professionals on techniques of making stained glass.

Many of the 350 students who have participated in the workshops will gravitate toward the small one- and two-person studios, rather than the larger ones, says Mr. Munley. When asked if this meant that larger studios were dying out, he admitted that he was concerned.

Helen Hickman however does not share that concern, although she admits the large studios are having to change their thinking.

"The future of the big studios depends o how active they are in bringing young people into the organization," she says. "They need to look forward to contemporary work, even if they are grounded in more traditional work. It's a continuing challenge."

Richard Millard says the key to a large studio's continued existence is diversification, pointing to Franklin Art Glass in Columbus, Ohio, as an example.

"I cannot see that studio dying out. Even though they're second and third generation glass people, they're not tradition-bound. They're diversified to such a point that they sell glass wholesale and retail, they conduct classes, they do lampshades, restaurants, churches, everything the old studio did plus additional things to keep abreast of today's things."

What about standards of excellence? Some people feel that modern stained glass will never compare with that found in the Gothic cathedrals of Chartres, Bourges, and Amiens. Louis Camacho, a foreman at Connick agrees -- to some extent.

"The old times had it on us," he says. "At cathedrals like Chartres the workers stayed at the church the entire time they were making the glass. They had their furnaces and pots right there at the site, so they had a feeling of just what mood they wanted while they were making and hand blowing the glass. Nowadays we do the best we can by visiting the churches [then creating the window in the studio]."

He adds that in many cases it is the imperfections in the old windows that are so enhancing -- air bubbles, for instance that cause "dancing lights" when the sun hits them.

But the design, craftsmanship, and attention to color, he says are the true signs of quality. The whole purpose of a stained glass window is to create a mood, and the right combination of these ingredients is what does it.

Orin Skinner admits that the Gothic work set a high standard, but says that some of today's work can meet it.

"That was a period when the character of glass and design was well understood. Times have changed, the idiom of design and the whole craft is changing, so it's difficult to make a comparison. But there are workers today who are in sympathy with design, symbolism, and color inherent in glass. We have so many forms of modern art in glass, as in painting, that it's difficult to set one standard, but we believe there are basic principles and underlying ideals apparent in fine stained glass of all times."

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