ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Fifteen years in Studio Glass and one expects to have a referral network, but when the phone rang one Sunday evening in 1995 I found how far and tenuously the tendrils can stretch. The best friend of the wife of someone I knew in the Boy Scouts (and that was a long time ago) was asking if I was interested in making the Stained Glass windows for a new Church. It is rare for a Church to be built rather than de-consecrated these days, but to be offered to do all the windows is extraordinary.
Three days later she and her husband attended a brief consultation in my studio and I experienced that instant rapport which leads to a great working relationship between artist and client. My quotation was accepted and I was duly commissioned to design fifteen windows for a brand new Chapel.
The brief was just that; brief. Figurative windows to a plan of my own design and only one stylistic parameter. I had originally suggested a Contemporary Abstract treatment. The principals were familiar with examples of such work in Europe but favoured a more traditional approach, however they had rejected all submissions to date as either too formulaic or they just hadn't liked what they had been shown. I suggested a pre-Raphaelite figurative style but with a looser background than is usual for that genre. Albeit a little vague, this was agreed upon.
With a few photos of the almost completed shell and the window dimensions I set to work on the concept. Firstly I wanted to indulge my original feeling for a loose, contemporary abstract motif and decided to weave that into the background on which the figurative scenes would be played out. Next task was to assign themes to each window, in a coherent sequence. The Bible was duly dusted off and pertinent chapters re-read. The last and most important subject had to wait until I visited the Church: deciding colours and contrast. In principle I favoured cool colours to counteract the strong light of Western NSW and was considering a light treatment of the painting. This is unusual in Australian Stained Glass, but I have observed that in strong, direct light even the most heavily painted windows halate and wash out, whereas in even light, especially the beautiful soft early morning and evening tones, they can impart a gloomy air upon the interior space. What is more, a soft rendition of the figures would work in well with the idea of creating a continuous design.
The themes came first. On entering the vestibule, the first window bears the Coats of Arms of the family. A tall window on the staircase to the organ loft cried out for a Jesse Tree and the big altar window a Last Judgment. There are three windows on each side of the nave. Old Testament on the South side and New Testament on the North. I wanted facing pairs of windows to be complimentary both thematically and stylistically and at the same time read in a logical, linear sequence. The first window depicts Creation, then Adam and Eve, then Moses. Opposite, along the North side of the nave is the Sermon on the Mount, Gethsemane and the Crucifixion. High on the West wall, behind the choir balcony, is the Annunciation and on the North of the organ loft the Holy Family. The Vestry has Noah and Joseph's Dream and the Sacristy St. Francis and the Good Shepherd.
Each window in the nave and the larger Vestry and Sacristy windows have a small lower light. This depicts a complimentary episode of the story above.
It seemed appropriate that the background patterns for all the windows derive from the Creation window. Facing pairs have mirror image background patterns. Moving West, the pattern is magnified with each set of windows. The waving motif thus swells towards the back of the Church and into the large West window and likewise to the Altar window. The background glass is not painted, so the eye is not halted at the plane of the window and prevented from seeing the external environment. To give the illusion that the windows float I used no borders. The combination was intended to prevent the windows from overwhelming the interior space and ideally assume a degree of harmony with the architecture.
The clients came to the studio on their next visit to Australia and we agreed it was time I saw the Church. I inquired how to get there and was asked if I had a problem with helicopters. I didn't think so, never having been asked that before and a few days later was whisked off to the country. This was a great way to encounter the building which was to occupy my life for the next two years. We swooped in over the granite tors to a beautifully laid out tapestry of polo fields, gardens and buildings and overlooking all, on a small, sparsely wooded hill was the Chapel. Constructed from granite hewn on the property, it has a castellated tower at its West portal, a high nave and symmetrical sacristies at the East end. Complete with slate covered hammer beam roof, Jarrah floors, cedar pews and brass chandeliers, organ and carillon, only the glazing remained. Close inspection showed the meticulous attention to detail which makes it a most beautiful and harmonious piece of architecture. I fell in love with it and worried from then on if my glazing could do it justice. Final details regarding theme and specifics of individual windows were resolved and I was commissioned to commence execution of the designs.
The glass was ordered from Fremont in Seattle, Desag in Germany and St. Just in France. The cartoons were presented to the principals at their home in England in September 1996 and the glass arrived in January 1997. Cutting and painting commenced immediately. The first windows were installed in August 1997. Unfortunately it was raining and the glaziers were unable to putty in the protective external glazing, so the windows were covered in black plastic as they had been when I arrived. During Christmas of 1997 the client's children came to my studio and under supervision, laid out a small panel in kiln formed glass which became the lower light of the organ loft window. This and the altar window were installed in June 1998. Finally I was able to walk into the building and see what I had done to it.
To my relief, not only was I pleased but the architect was happy too. The play of light across the interior spaces was magical and the reflection of the Annunciation window high in the West wall of the tower played on the marble floor of the Sanctuary in the afternoon light, just as I had envisaged. However this last day on site was also strangely anti climactic. It was over. The last task was to photograph the windows and make a portfolio to send to the clients. Two and a half years of my life was now captured on twenty frames of celluloid and it was time to step out of fantasy land and back to reality.
It was a great adventure. This sort of commission probably only comes once in a lifetime, if you're lucky. It was a privilege to work with clients who appreciate beauty, understand the value of art and give enough room within the commission process for the artist to experience challenge and expression. I will live in hope that one day the phone will ring again from the distant reaches of my far flung web.
Marc Grunseit 1998