For over a thousand-years, the technology and techniques used to make stained glass have not changed all that much. Artists cut large panes of colored glass into smaller pieces, and assemble them using molten lead into works of mostly-religious art. The process is time-consuming and labor-intensive.
And that makes it ripe for disruption. Working in a vast, brand-new sunlit studio just off the steep ravines of the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, California, a small team of artists is looking to do just that, using a novel technique developed by one of the world’s top glass artists.
Judson Studios is a 30-person family-run business that for the last 120 years has hewn closely to the traditional methods of making stained glass. Steeped in the turn-of-the-century California Arts and Crafts movement, the company built its reputation making traditional stained glass designs for churches and well-heeled customers, including the Walt Disney Company and Hollywood celebrities like Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson.
But two years ago, the company embarked on a radical change to its business, investing over $1 million dollars in a new facility to deploy a novel process called fused glass.
“The light invades the glass in a thousand different ways,” says Narcissus Quagliata, the driving force behind the process. “It’s like this dance between the material and the light. The medium is so powerful because the light goes straight to the soul.”
Quagliata is perhaps the artist most responsible for the use of fused glass as an art form in large installations. Born in Rome in 1942, Quagliata has been working with glass for over 40 years. He designed the Kaohsiung Dome of Light in Taiwan, the largest illuminated art-glass dome in the world. His work has been shown in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.
In 2014, he was contacted by Judson Studios about a new commission they were bidding on to create the world’s largest single-image stained glass window for the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The project was a 100-foot by 40-foot image of stories from the bible, with a large portrait of Christ in the middle.
Other stained glass installations, for example in the Cathedral of Reims in France, are larger, but the images themselves are broken up by stone supports. This window and it’s 161 radiant panes represent a single, unbroken image.
Judson Studios was competing against 60 plus other glass-makers from around the world. “I knew right away this would be the ideal showcase for the technique,” Quagliata said. But the company was not equipped to create such a large installation. Their main facility was far too small to build and assemble so much glass. So, at Quagliata’s urging, the company moved into a new 7,000 square feet industrial space with six large kilns.
David Judson, the company’s 47-year old owner, admits that he’s betting the future of the company on fused glass. “We’ve made the commitment, but the jury is still out on whether it will pay off,” he says.
Quagliata brought his expertise to the fledgling project, teaming up with Judson’s creative director Tim Carey, who was tasked with designing the window’s complicated iconography.
The fused glass process is relatively simple, but until now it has never before been employed on such an ambitious scale.
“Fused glass is basically the ability of combining different colors of glass, melting them together to form an image,” says Carey. “Traditional stained glass is made by painting on glass, we are painting with glass.” You can see what he means in the video above.
In the past, efforts to melt different colors of glass together were hampered by the way different colors are made.
Colored glass traditionally used additive chemicals like cadmium sulfide to make yellow, chromic oxide to make green and cobalt to make blue. The different chemical compositions of each made it hard to fuse them together using heat. The final pieces would inevitably crack or break when taken out of the kiln.
But a company called Bullseye Glass in Portland, Oregon, came up with a way to create colored glass that would hold together using a granulated form of glass called frit, creating large single panes with astonishing patterns and varieties of color. Seeing one of the panes brought out of the kiln and held to the light is like watching two rainbows wrestle.
“It is extraordinarily beautiful. It is extraordinarily expressive. And what you can do with it has no limits,” says Quagliata.
The company has worked around the clock over the last two years, fusing colored glass and frit together in massive kilns that can reach temperatures of more than 2000 degrees fahrenheit. On March 1, they installed the final panel at the Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City.
On April 1, they will unveil the new window to the public.