- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

Leslie Rathell of Alexandria just wanted to fill some time by taking classes in stained glass. Instead, she developed a new passion. In the past year, Ms. Rathell, 48, has made several items to decorate her home, including panels and picture frames.

“It teaches you patience,” she says. “You have to take your time to get it just right.”

The age-old art of stained glass, which probably originated more than 2,000 years ago, is still being enjoyed. What makes the art form particularly unusual is its dependence on light. Although many people associate it with churches, it also can be displayed in residences and businesses.

New artists, such as Ms. Rathell, are always surprised when their projects come out well, says Diane Tansey, co-owner of Virginia Stained Glass Co. in Springfield. After friends and family see the outcome, they usually request their own pieces, which often creates a stained-glass addiction in the student.

The store offers classes on varying levels, including Beginning Stained Glass Panel, in which students construct a 12-by-14-inch copper foil panel, choosing from among 55 patterns. The fall courses begin on Wednesday and Thursday. The cost of supplies averages $400, plus a $70 class fee for the six-week course.

“It allows them to be creative away from their everyday jobs,” Mrs. Tansey says. “You put it together like a puzzle.”

In general, when creating a piece, students start by practicing with a glass cutter. After developing a steady hand, they either make an original design or choose a pre-made pattern. Then they choose the colors of glass they want for the project and cut it in the appropriate shape. When the pieces are cut, they are assembled with either copper foil or lead came — strips of lead — depending on preference. The students also learn how to solder and how to frame or install the pieces.

Although it might sound overwhelming to beginners, anyone can learn, says Nancy Weisser, owner of Weisser Glass Studio in Kensington. Among the classes and workshops her company offers is Beginners Stained Glass I With Lead Came Construction. Tuition is $110, plus tools and supplies, which can cost about $300. The fall session begins Oct. 14. Cutting large sheets of glass, creating patterns, differentiating among types of glass, using tools, glazing and soldering are all taught.

“I have not found too many students who couldn’t do it,” she says. “I have had one or two who get freaked out by cutting glass because they’ve been taught all their lives not to break glass.”

The most difficult part of the process is making the lead came fit around the glass construction, says Lori Sterrett of Rockville, who just finished a beginner class, a birthday present from her husband. She completed a pattern for an abstract flower to make a small panel.

“I’m giving the piece to my mother-in-law for her 65th birthday,” she says. “I’ll eventually make one for myself.”

Most students don’t realize the depth of history behind the art form, says Jimmy Powers, a stained-glass artist who teaches classes at the Art League School in Alexandria. The nine-week fall session starts Sept. 22. It costs $185 for tuition, plus supplies, which cost about $225. The class is limited to a maximum of 14 students.

It is likely that Egyptian or Mesopotamian potters discovered glass when firing their vessels, according to the Stained Glass Quarterly in Raytown, Mo. The earliest known man-made glass — Egyptian beads — is dated from between 2750 and 2625 B.C. Artists made these beads of opaque glass by winding a string of molten glass around a removable clay core.

It is also thought that Romans glazed irregular, nontransparent glass into windows during the first century. St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, England, which was founded in A.D. 686, is one of the oldest known examples where multiple pieces of colored glass were used for windows.

Further, it is important to note that what distinguishes the medium is its coloring, not the form in which the glass is used, Mr. Powers says. Therefore, cathedral windows are not the only type of stained glass. The glass has been chemically changed through the use of metallic oxides in making the glass. For instance, copper makes green glass and gold makes red and ruby glass.

“I’m constantly amazed by what some of my beginners produce, like Palladian windows, bathroom window panels, Tiffany reproduction lampshades, cabinet inserts, mosaic pieces,” Mr. Powers says. “You can get lost in the craft.”

Safety should be a consideration whenever anyone works with stained glass, says Phillip McKee, who teaches courses at the Fairlington Center, which is run by Arlington County Parks, Recreation and Community Resources. The next eight-week stained-glass class starts Sept. 17. It costs $117 plus supplies of more than $100. The class is limited to a maximum of 10 persons. Mr. McKee also gives private lessons upon request.

Apart from handling the glass cutters and glass itself with care, Mr. McKee says the lead came used in constructing the work also should be treated cautiously. Lead dust could be created when cutting the material, and it should not be inhaled.

“There are a lot of things that are common sense that when you’re working you forget,” he says. “For instance, by putting your soldering iron down and not on a stand [you] could start a fire.”

Although many artists learn through trial and error, some will progress to the point of making fine art, says Bruce Manwaring, an associate professor of studio arts in the School of Art and Design at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. He frequently creates work on commission for clients.

He requires that his students make original designs for every project in an attempt to elevate the artistic value and integrity of the field, especially because it was a high art form into the 20th century. A number of today’s artists are highly recognized for their work in glass, including Johannes Schreiter, a German artist born in 1930.

“It became a hobby,” Mr. Manwaring says. “I’m not interested in trinkets or lamps, although lamps can be very creative, but for the most part, what you see are reproduction Tiffany-style lamps, or geometric forms … A lot of people are ignorant of glass, and they call it a craft; to me it’s a fine art.”

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