When you turned 50, you decided to do things you’d never done before. How was the flying lesson?
Pretty amazing. Flying a small plane was the closest I’ve ever gotten to being a bird, and a lot better than jumping off a roof while flapping my arms. I suggested to my husband that we sell our house, each get a pilot’s license, buy a plane and just fly around to small airports near interesting places. Ever practical, he pointed out that we’d have no way to get anywhere from the airport, so it wasn’t actually such a great idea.
You’re not originally a Mainer. Where did you grow up?
On Long Island, in East Meadow, until I was 15. Then my family moved to East Norwich, also on Long Island. So I left one high school where I was one of several thousand students and started as a sophomore at Oyster Bay High School—a school of only several hundred. I was the interesting new kid. Fabulous move.
And your trajectory as an artist?
Not the usual. I didn’t grow up “knowing.” I took a few art courses in college, but I wasn’t an art major. Still, I was always creating, and using tools, making things that were three-dimensional. The glass came later.
I was living in New York City, writing advertising on Madison Avenue (I still can’t believe it). I was with a friend, on my way to Nantucket to see a total solar eclipse—only to find out that all the ferries were full and we couldn’t leave the mainland. The hotel we stayed in had a contemporary stained-glass window: transparent colored glass, no painted robes, no burning bushes, no symmetrical patterns in milky glass. I fell in love with it. When I got back to Manhattan, I asked around and found Jean-Jacques Duval, who was teaching stained glass there.
Did you take to it right away?
Pretty much. At my first class, when I picked up the glass cutter and cut a piece of red glass‚ I was hooked. The glass we used to learn the techniques was mouth-blown, from France and Germany. It’s called antique glass, even though it’s made today. This is still the glass I primarily use, because it’s handmade with bubbles, striations and crackles that make each square different from any other. It’s gorgeous! And cutting glass still feels like magic.
Do most stained-glass makers work with antique glass?
Not at all. A lot of the stained-glass windows you see these days are made from machine-rolled and -textured glass that looks to me like colored shower stall glass. Of course, that kind of glass is less expensive, so the makers can charge a lot less for their work.
So you don’t use that kind of glass at all?
Actually, I do for some processes—when it’s needed. For example, when I create pieces of fused glass, I do use machine-rolled flat glass because when antique glass fires in the kiln it loses most of the texture. Plus all the different colors need to be physically compatible so they heat and cool at exactly the same rate. It’s called the coefficient of expansion.
Sounds very technical.
It is—and that’s all I can say about that due to lack of knowledge and/or intelligence.
Very funny. Switching gears, a number of your stained-glass projects are in public spaces through the Maine Arts Commission. What’s that process like—applying for and getting accepted?
Complicated. And competitive. Maine’s Percent for Art law was enacted in 1979 to provide art for public buildings. The way it works is artists send in proposals. A committee reviews them, then chooses several finalists they invite to present their proposal, for the site-specific artwork they’re proposing along with a detailed budget. After that the committee makes their selection—often more than one if the budget allows.
And then you’re free to execute the work as you see fit?
More or less. They might make a few comments or requests for minor changes. But they don’t micro-manage the creation process. The Maine Arts Commission selects and facilitates contracting. But for the most part they trust the artists and let us create the work.
I don’t think a lot of people understand the process of making stained glass. Tell us about it.
Sure. When I make a traditional stained glass window, I draw the design full size, trace it onto heavy paper, number and cut out each piece to create pattern pieces. I use these to cut each piece of colored glass to exactly the right size. It’s like a glass jigsaw puzzle, so if one piece is too big, the whole design is out of whack. Then each piece of glass is wrapped in copper and I lay out the design on the original drawing. I melt 60/40 tin and lead solder to create a little I-beam around each piece of glass which holds the window together. Sometimes I use strips of lead instead and build up the window from one side to the other before soldering only the joints.
And if everything doesn’t go right?
I might wind up with a lump of melted glass in the bottom of the bowl. Not good. But once I figure it out, I can set a precise firing schedule on the kiln’s programmer, and it will do the exact same cycle of heating and cooling every time.
What’s the most unusual commission you’ve done?
Probably a six- by six-foot mobile of tropical fish for a home in Florida.
What happened was I had taken a photo of a small mobile I’d made and posted it online. About 10 minutes later, someone from Florida called, saying they wanted to buy it for the stairway of a new home they were building down there. When I pointed out that it was tiny compared to the size of the space they were thinking about, they commissioned a much larger mobile featuring fused-glass tropical fish.
Yes, and I LOVE making glass fish. So after jumping for joy, I got to work fusing the fish and hiring a metal-working company to bend the steel rods needed to keep everything together and let all the pieces swivel and turn freely. Figuring out the balance and making sure the fish wouldn’t crash into one another was baffling until I talked to my fabulous husband who, unlike the rest of us, remembers everything he learned in high school algebra and trigonometry. He actually gave me the formula for mass and distance. By weighing each fish I was able to have the rods made with loops in all the right places.
What was your first public art piece and what was the reaction?
The solar system plus satellites (man-made and moons), comets, asteroids and distant stars were all designed into a stained-glass window in a light box for a school in Buckfield, Maine. I installed this on an interior wall, turned on the lights inside the box and stepped back to take a photo. At that moment a bell rang and students poured out of classrooms into the hallway, where I’m sure they thought I was just somebody’s mom. Two boys stood in front of me, looking at this new lighted vision of outer space, and one said, “What is that?” The other boy answered, “I don’t know. But I like it!” This remains a highlight of my artistic career.
Is there one piece of work you consider your “masterpiece”?
Well, I’m not sure I’d use that word. But sometimes I get what seem like fabulous ideas but have absolutely no idea how to accomplish them. This happened in 1999, when I proposed making a 3-D fused-glass map with topographic landscape elevations and color determined using a Geographic Information System computer program. The map was to be nine feet high and nine feet wide—installed in a 16-square-foot light box on a wall of the Camden Hills Regional High School. The map would basically show the five towns represented by the student population. It seemed like a great idea, and the school’s Percent for Art Committee agreed.
The map took me a year, about 47 bottles of Tums, at least 94 conversations with architects, other artists, engineers, hardware stores, clay suppliers, builders and friends, plus many wide-awake hours when I should have been sleeping. So in the sense that it’s the engineering marvel of my life, yes, I’d call this one my masterpiece. Sure, I’ve made work I think is more beautiful or more artistic, but this map, still mounted 21 years later on the school’s wall, was a huge challenge. I still feel extremely proud of myself whenever I see it and grateful to all who helped out.
Where can people see some of your work?
Around the state in schools, ferry terminals, hospitals and the Maine Judicial Center, a new courthouse in Augusta that houses the Maine Supreme Court. For that building I created two large windows depicting a river flowing to the sea. I’ve also made stained-glass windows for the Rockland Ferry Terminal and several others—in Lincolnville, Vinalhaven, North Haven and Isleboro. My work can also be seen in the meditation room of Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick and in schools in Camden, Portland, Blue Hill, Norridgewock, Waterford, Auburn, and about 20 other towns around the state.
What’s most rewarding for you about people’s reaction to your work?
I think the element of surprise. Stained-glass windows aren’t something most people expect to see outside of a house of worship. Of course, not everyone is going to like my work. But almost everyone has an emotional response to colorful light, and that response is usually joy.
Creating joy from your art is a wonderful legacy. How does that make you feel?
Great. Really. My work is in homes, businesses and about 35 public buildings. Over the years I’ve gotten lots of positive comments. And I like to think just making this many people stop and look at art and even think about the design, color, light and subject matter—well, that’s a good thing. As often as possible I try to inject a message into my work—especially in school installations—about something the kids are learning about, like astronomy or ecology or wildlife or plants. But I hope that looking at my work, kids get another message, too: that being an artist is a worthwhile career to consider.
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Things to do?
Snorkeling on coral reefs and eating.
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Janet Redfield is offering her smaller pieces (like these) on her CREATIVE MAINE Shop Page. See more!