Unless you want to read my long-winded story about how I crossed paths with stained glass, don’t click “read more” – just enjoy the slide show of some of the work I did while a student in LSU’s stained glass department.
[It’s not too late to turn back! Just click RETURN TO SLIDE SHOW on the left.]
MY PATH TO STAINED GLASS
FROM DARTBOARD TO MUD BUGS
The path from career-dartboard in the guidance councilor’s office at Pine Bluff High to my fascination with stained glass was an unlikely one, but then aren’t most career quests? . . . I remember standing around one day at high school listening to all of my friends, every one of whom would go on to careers in medicine, speculate as to which medical specialization would be the most lucrative. We all had decent GPA’s (don’t get me wrong – we also took full advantage of finding ourselves at the tail-end of the sixties (or I at least thought so until I woke up a few months later in my freshman college dorm. . . )), but I had a sneaking suspicion that thanks to a distracting vasovagal tendency, I would be the one not to end up in med school.
My foray into academia began with science/math/philosophy/religion studies at Duke University and Hendrix College punctuated with lab assistantships at the University of Texas and the National Center for Toxicological Research. Gaps (and billfold) were filled with stints at my granddad’s oak flooring mill and in the warehouse at my Dad’s paper distributorship with a healthy sprinkling of dazzling forays into the American Southwest, sparkling canoe trips in Arkansas and a summer trek across Europe. After my first years in college, I realized that although I was (and remain) fascinated with the sciences, I wasn’t drawn to do one of them for a living. An aptitude test suggested landscape architecture might be a good fit, so I began looking for another school.
If I hadn’t happened to call the School of Landscape Architecture at LSU early during the summer of 1973, who knows what I might be doing now. The inimitable Mrs. Bee, voice of the school, put my call straight through to its improbable and transcendent founder and head, affectionately known to one and all simply as “Doc” (Robert S. Reich). Picture a friendly, wild-haired, absent-minded-professor on a bicycle (which I actually managed to do during that first phone call!?). After a fifteen minute conversation with Doc, his over-the-top and slightly crazed enthusiasm nipped my search in the bud. I made the snap decision to transfer to LSU for the fall semester, sight-unseen, never even having been to Baton Rouge or to that state of mind called south Louisiana. Tigers and mud bugs. . . what was I thinking?
SO, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH STAINED GLASS , MUCH LESS AUTONOMOUS PANELS?
OK, let me back up a bit: For most of its history stained glass has been a medium shrouded in mystery. As had its even earlier antecedents in European trade guilds, American stained glass studios rigorously shielded the secrets of the trade from public view. Stained glass techniques were parsimoniously bestowed on workers through a long, laborious and clandestine apprenticeship system. Most workers retired or died before ever being allowed to design stained glass. Then beginning in the mid 1960’s the cat was suddenly let out of the bag.
The New Glass Movement* seemed to arise spontaneously among a number of American artists, primarily on the West coast. Maybe it was the antiauthoritarianism of the times, but they began ferreting out the technical secrets of stained glass. One of them, Peter Mollica, who actually had apprenticed for a while in an east coast studio, had the audacity to reveal his knowledge in his popular Stained Glass Primers I and II. Otto Rigan’s New Glass was a pictorial catalog of stained glass artists that inspired many others to move beyond the old-guard studio movement. English translations of Theophilus’ On Divers Arts, an eleventh century how-to treatise on stained glass, became available in the early 1960’s. (*Don’t confuse the New Glass Movement with the craft and hobby craze that swept the US like Starbucks in the 1980‘s.)
Concurrently and parallel to developments on the west coast, we find Paul Dufour in Baton Rouge, Louisiana intensely pursuing his dual career as painter and fine arts professor. After receiving a commission in 1963 to create stained glass for the St. Joseph Chapel at the Catholic Student Center in Baton Rouge, he was unable to find a traditional studio willing to collaborate with him as designer. As did his west coast counterparts, Dufour shrugged his shoulders and set out to demystify the “lost” art of stained glass. After designing and fabricating the Resurrection Window for the center, Paul enthusiastically continued working in his new-found medium. By 1967 he was ready to formalize his mastery of stained glass into an undergraduate fine arts degree in LSU’s Fine Arts Department – the first of its kind in the world. A Master of Fine Arts degree in stained glass was approved in 1971.
My introduction to the art of stained glass was a huge case of luck-of-the-draw. My first semester at LSU required a color theory class. Of the three possible instructors, I happened to draw Paul Dufour who, as it turned out, was the most influential teacher of my academic adventure. He was an amazing, renaissance-man of a teacher. Following his Albers-on-steroids color theory course, I couldn’t wait to continue studies with him. As I mentioned, in 1967, a few years before I got to LSU, Paul had established the world’s first stained glass curriculum. If I wanted more Dufour, stained glass was the only way I was going to get it. Stained glass?. . . Might be fun. . . Drawn more by teacher than subject, I interviewed and was accepted into Beginning Stained Glass. Four years later I realized that the medium of stained glass had made as indelible an impression on me as had Professor Dufour.
FINALLY: AUTONOMOUS PANELS
At LSU stained glass was treated conceptually as an extension of easel painting or other of the graphic arts. We referred to our free-hanging projects as autonomous panels – autonomous in the sense that they were self-contained and not subordinate to client or architecture or sun angles or budget as are the commissioned projects that now dominate my time. From his undergraduate studies at Yale with Wilhem deKooning and Josef Albers (who himself had re-invented stained glass during his Bauhaus days) and post-graduate work in Japan with Ikuo Hirayama and Takahiko Fujita, Dufour inspired a simultaneously intellectual and intuitive approach to stained glass design in his students.
These autonomous panels were not undertaken lightly. Line drawings, temperature studies, color renderings, figure/ground analyses, etc., etc. had to survive Paul’s blistering scrutiny and the almost certain revisions he demanded. Before precious sheets of glass could be checked out and cut, our designs had to earn Paul’s final approval. During the first semester we were forbidden to use full- or half-sheets of glass, but rather had to rummage through the scrap bins for left-overs created by upper class members. Once completed each autonomous panel and its maker had to submit to another, even more grueling critique. But gladly submit we surprisingly did. We learned a lot about art, stained glass and you-never-could-predict-what from Paul’s wide ranging commentaries. Some of us regularly skipped other classes in order to sit in on more of Paul’s critiques.
An ongoing and lively debate among students and faculty about the perception of stained glass permeated LSU’s stained glass department. Those from a painterly background tended to be preoccupied with two-dimensional imagery – they minimized, or even ignored the importance of the transparency of stained glass. This view was reinforced by the frustrating fact that the student-artist has no control over the lighting conditions under which an autonomous panel ultimately will be viewed. As you might have guessed, I was a member of the opposing camp, maintaining that full utilization of stained glass as a legitimate medium must start with a thorough exploration of glass’s multi-dimensional possibilities. (Later studies with Schaffrath and Schreiter helped to refine my predilection.)
The photos included here are from those halcyon days at LSU where I learned not only how to fabricate stained glass, but, more importantly, I began learning how to think through this amazing new medium. Paul is still looking over my shoulder and I am still learning. . .