Thursday, May 22, 2008

Kentucky: By Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

My mother and father would have appreciated Frost's poem, though I don't know that either ever read it. The sense of discovery. The three fragile players--spider, white heal-all, and moth. The bittersweet balance of nature, life and death.

Frost, ever brooding, can't stop with the mis-en-scene--He asks,

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

When I recall the last days of both my parents, I find that Frost gives voice to my thoughts. Mine was a larger scene: the dissolution of my father's essence; my mother's final silence. Those days I tried to ask, "What brought us here? Could I have changed things? How can I make sense of this design?

Eventually my own creative forces reached in to scoop me out of the hole. With Phil's support and interest I decided to design a memorial to our parents.

It's for a window in the stairwell of the church where we grew up. This stained glass is isolated--it won't be closely juxtaposed with existing balcony windows. But we wanted the color and format to be compatible.

In my first drawings I tried to repeat the basic arch and grid pattern of original windows. These prototypes didn't exactly move me in color or style, but I kept going.

Our window would face the newly created prayer garden -- lighted and visible from the garden bench in twilight or early morning.

A wildflower theme was my first idea and I stuck with that. Mom and Dad delighted in their own garden and transplanted dozens of fragile flowers from Hailwell to a shady spot in our back yard. As children, Phil and I were often steered to the wildflower garden to see the first sprouts of the season. Later as young parents we did the same with Kent and Matt,Ben, Mason, and Emma.

So the Dutchman’s Breeches, trillium, bloodroot, ferns, violets...each heralded a new season both in the farm woods and in our own back yard. As my first ideas surfaced, it seemed that the pale golds, blue greens, and lavenders would play nicely against colors of the existing glass.

Phil suggested adding an Indigo Bunting to the design. Transplanting and tending the wildflower garden from Hailwell was mostly Mom’s domain. But on jaunts to the farm it was always Dad’s job to point out the glittering flight of the bluebirds, now so rarely seen.

The first clean draft of the window positioned the birds at top quarters and meant this design would not be crafted with four identical quarters, but as two halves in mirror images. This suited me fine until I begin experimenting with color. Too much bluebird. Not enough pastel and woods color. Top heavy to the max. I went back to the drawing board.

The next design placed trilliums at each corner, golden crocus and Jack in the Pulpit on the sides. Foliage was in yellow greens and blue greens.

A tulip magnolia–-reference to Mom’s beloved Hickman County Museum–-found a spot at top and bottom center, with slender Dutchman’s Breeches providing a sparkle of white. Indigo Bunting, edited in scale and position, was center-stage.

At this point a draft went to Wallis Stained Glass in Murray, with color bars from the original windows placed at the sides for reference.

Jack Wallis Stained Glass is a few miles outside Murray, Kentucky, a cluster of rectangular shops in a hollow off Butterworth Road. It's quiet. Neither Ira nor I knew what to expect, but preliminary phone calls and emails made me feel comfortable about this stage of the project.

After ritual greetings and a warm-up conversation, Jeremy Speight and I took a look at my drawing.

There's a lot of pausing and looking. We begin the ritual of pulling out glass samples and checking them against the colors I've proposed.

Just hauling out large glass pieces from their upright positions in storage bins was a delicate operation.

Jeremy and Patty Cornelius placed large monoliths of glass in the window, so we could consider the texture, transparency, and impact of color against color.

There was a lot of talk about greens. Yellow-greens, blue-greens, green-greens. How color plays against color for maximum effect.

Patty produced a delicate yellow-gold for the center crocus. We talk about cutting the glass so veins and texture will starburst from a center point. My confidence was established...the designers and glass-cutters here seemed to appreciate the subtlety of each component of our wildflower window.

We slid a swirly rose-colored glass from the bin and checked it against the
light. Easy decision--the pink magnolia blossom would be cut from this piece. Indigo blue is another issues. We looked at several samples and finally settled on one.

I was amazed that we found a piece of glass that echoes the borders of the original windows. It was a swirling pattern of purples and blues...and included some earthy browns. To my eye it was dramatic and distinctive. And should be used sparingly in a pastel window.

The black-and-white design was exactly like I drew it, with small improvements suggested by Patty and Jeremy to facilitate the flow and to stabilize the design.

The blue-greens and yellow-greens had a subtle difference, and as promised, the individual cuts brought out the beauty of the grain of the glass.

There's an abundance of soft white in the window and the band of dark multicolor makes a nice contrast. This is also the same glass that's used in the other balcony windows--a swirl of blue, purple, amber.

So far I was happy with the details. The dutchman's breeches flow into the pink tulip magnolia. Lines that flare from the blossoms were an addition that made the design more graceful than my original sketch.

It's all about the light. So when the leaded window was propped against the window, the colors sprang to life.
It was a mix of sweet and earthy colors, geometric and organic shapes. Jeremy put more gold in the window than I had in my initial sketches and I'm not sure if I liked it when I saw a photograph of the finished window. Nevertheless I ok'd it during a conversation we had and crossed my fingers that it would looks ok installed.

Finally, months later, the window is installed. I'm happy with the craftsmanship. The cuts are smooth--even the difficult curves--and no modern shortcuts were used in the leading process. The colors are distinctive--earthy golds --not my choice but they keep the pastels from being cloying, the greens and purples resonate in ways I'd hoped. If I were starting over I would do some things differently, both in the window and in the larger scheme of things. How it ultimately worked out was all right...I'm at peace with it. At some point I realized the design was out of my hands.

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