Neumann Studios: Reflections on Glass
Electricity has been around for less than one hundred years. Stained glass has been around for over one thousand. Before the advent of perspective, before the world was discovered to be round, and hundreds of years before Columbus reached these shores, stained-glass windows were being created and installed in cathedrals in Europe.
The techniques we use at Neumann Studios -- the use of mouth-blown glass, acid etching, silver staining, painting and firing and leading the glass -- have all been in use for hundreds of years. There are examples in existence of stained glass dating to the year 1060. We find it rewarding to carry on the traditions that stained-glass artists have used for centuries. And, in a society filled with rapid change, there is something very satisfying about creating a window that can last one thousand years!
However, there are many challenges to showing traditional painted stained glass. One of them is that most people these days are not familiar with the medium and its uses. People have often been surprised that we paint and fire the glass, thinking that this is a new technique. In fact, most stained glass in cathedrals and churches has been painted and fired. The advent of unpainted and copper-foiled glass -- the sort that is often seen at crafts fairs and in window sun-catchers these days -- was brought about by the influence of Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge at the end of the 1800s. Tiffany invented both the technique of copper foiling for quick assembly of lamps and the technique of creating more textural variety in glass (although he continued to use lead in his windows). La Farge invented opaque glass in an attempt to use less paintwork on the glass (although he continued to use paintwork, especially on the human form).
Why do all these distinctions matter? They matter because traditional stained glass and the "stained glass" commonly seen today are two very different forms of glass with different applications, yet they continue to have the same name. The unpainted glass most often seen at crafts fairs is usually meant to be hung in a clear window and can be seen with light surrounding it. It is often illuminated by reflected light (light bouncing off the object). The windows we create are architectural and, because of the paintwork, must be seen in a dimly lit space to be truly appreciated. They are dependent on architecture, and on refracted light (light shining through the object). Their colors are deadened by reflected light. This leads to the second challenge we face: the "competition" of traditional stained glass with electricity and other sources of light. Let us put this in a historical perspective . . . .
From the beginning of humankind until the most recent hundred-year blip in history when electricity was invented, humans lived with natural light. Night darkness was illuminated by starlight, moonlight or fire light, and eventually by candles or oil lamps. Dwellings were dimly lit, with small shafts of light coming from small holes for windows. It is no wonder that the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, as well as Chanukah and Christmas, all involve the dramatic interplay of light and darkness. When stained glass was invented, it was first used in cathedrals as a way to bring dazzling color, beauty and spirit to these shafts of light. The intensity of all the light coming into the building was channeled entirely through the glass. This power of opposites -- the light against the darkness -- is what gives traditional stained glass its awesome quality. Today, usually surrounded by light in our dwellings during the day and night, people seldom have this experience of the magic and warmth provided by this lighting of the darkness.
When Neumann Studios rented a space on Brattleboro's Main Street as part of May's Gallery Walk, we created the situation in which stained glass is best seen, the only sources of light in the space illuminating our pieces from behind. Some people walking by chose not to enter this dark space and tried to make sense of what seemed like colorless dark windows from the outside. But many of those who ventured into what initially seemed to be a curiously dark space were awestruck and moved. In part, our creations inspired this sense of wonder. We believe the contrast of the light with the darkness so rarely experienced today is also partially responsible.
Rick Neumann and I, who comprise Neumann Studios, believe that in an ideal world we would have more of these experiences. We would have areas in our homes -- meditation rooms, libraries, stairwells, windows between two rooms -- which would be cozy, contained, and illuminated by stained glass. We would be able to balance those areas of our home con-taining picture windows (causing us to look out) with those areas of the home illuminated by stained glass (perhaps causing us to reflect or look inward). In our lives brightly lit by elec-tricity, we have often forgotten the magic and mystery of light. In a world where three-year-old computers are obsolete, stained glass -- along with candlelight and firelight -- can slow us down and allow us to appreciate the beauty of the moment. Many of us do not attend churches or synagogues or other places of worship where stained glass is most often seen, and the need to retreat and reflect is often left unattended. We believe stained glass can be a vehicle for spirit, a nurturing experience for our soul. At the very least, it can give us a sense of timeless beauty.
At their studio during the June 6 Gallery Walk, Neumann Studios will display a pair of soon-to-be-installed landscape windows (45"x63" each) created for the Meadowlark Inn on Orchard Street in Brattleboro. They will also be demonstrating various techniques, including painting on glass, using works in progress.
The studio is located in the former Swedish Congregational Church one mile from downtown Brattleboro on Strand Ave. (Take Crosby Street across from Sunoco Station on Western Ave., and go left down hill onto Strand Ave. The church is on the left.) The studio is always open during Gallery Walk hours on the first Friday of the month, and is also open by appointment.
Call (802) 251-9901 and visit their Web site at www.neumannstudios.com.
Copyright 2003, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont