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Art glass adds distinct gleam

Homeowners are hiring artists to make custom windows and doors with leaded panels and stained glass.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003

ODESSA -- Geneva Perkins lingers in the foyer of an old Florida-style house, coaxing in the twilight. The leaded art-glass panels she has just installed catch the warmth of the fading sun. The result: an abstract blend of art nouveau and Victorian sensibilities.

Black lead accents the glass, granite-textured and clear, swirled into shapes that resemble teardrops and fleur-de-lis.

It exudes attitude -- gracious, welcoming, a little offbeat -- lending the distinctly Southern home a slightly arty first impression.

Perkins, who owns West of the Moon Studios in Tampa, is a fifth-generation artist who specializes in custom-stained glasswork. Her projects are both time-consuming and very personal, involving the owner's aesthetic input as well as her own vision.

Custom art glass has burgeoned in popularity in the past three years, and Perkins thinks she knows why: A growing trend among home buyers toward custom homes has allowed for many more personal touches, including beautiful, often jewel-colored touches of beveled art glass.

Typically, many homeowners want a splash of art glass at the front door, said Bob Mitchell, owner of the Door Depot. Mitchell, who arrives at a client's home armed with a CD-ROM catalog of more than 100 styles he can customize to taste, said the front door is a logical showcase for his product.

"The front door is the first real opportunity homeowners have to say something about their personalities," Mitchell said. "It's the first place you can really make a statement."

About a year ago, Mitchell decided to focus his business solely on custom art glass because there was such a demand for it among his clients. He tries to appeal to all budgets, taking into account "many of the good old folks who just want to do something with the front of their house."

At Artistic Doors and Locks in northwestern Hillsborough County, four on-staff glass artists create designs for doors, windows and entry foyers, often for newly built homes.

The price tag can run from $3,000 to $5,000 for a functional yet lovely piece that "allows light to come in yet gives a certain amount of privacy and security," owner Ed Bailey said.

Perkins typically completes about 50 custom art-glass projects a year. Many are ambitious in scope and cost as much as $6,000 for a job that might include side panels, a transom and a very personalized front door -- a combination that can dramatically change the look of the front of a house.

Projects take three to four months to complete because of her personal attention to detail. That includes inviting a client to her Busch Boulevard studio to pick out glass and colors before creating thumbnail sketches of a proposed project. She then visits the client at home "to get some of their personality" before completing her sketches.

"It's a great way to have a piece of art right at the front door. It makes an awesome, awesome first impression," said Susannah Wilson Smith, whose family hired Perkins to design art glass for the foyer of their Odessa home.

"We wanted it to be functional. We didn't want curtains. We wanted the sun to come through. People have to realize that stained glass is art and that art gives energy to a front door," Smith said. "The wonderful thing about the glass is the way it changes with the day and the season because of the way the sun shifts."

Whether the art glass is for a foyer, stairwell or bank of windows, Perkins said she wants to first understand the way a piece of stained glass will blend with the interior of a house.

"I want to know what a customer likes and dislikes. I want them to tell me what they visualize," she said.

Popular styles right now include "Old World, Moorish, Gothic, Italian Renaissance and French baroque," Perkins said. The same clients who are drawn to those periods, she added, are also taken with compatible colors: earth tones, ambers and browns.

After templates are made -- when her design is drawn to full size -- Perkins cuts the glass to fit the design. The multiple stage process includes adding lead, then soldering the glass together. Further steps include puttying, cleaning and buffing before the glass is then left "to sit" for four to seven days.

A former heavy equipment mechanic at a Polk County phosphate mine, Perkins, 45, got into the art glass business about 14 years ago. She had been selling her pottery in art shows since she was a teenager, but had to give it up after suffering nerve damage to her hands.

She is both gentle and demanding at once, a woman self-taught in virtually everything, including her stained glass trade. She claims she has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica "front to back," as well as the dictionary and Bible.

She traces her artistic roots to her great-grandmother's father, a watchmaker in New Orleans. Besides creating custom art glass for homes, she restores antique glass objects. Her portfolio includes replicas of a window from the Henry Ford mansion in Detroit and a pair of Tiffany lamps.

She employs a handful of people at her studio, but few stay with her long, she said.

"I demand a certain quality and a lot of people aren't willing to put in that kind of work," she said. "To be a craftsman, you have to put your heart and soul into a project. If you're just going to throw something together, then I don't want you."

She also becomes very attached to her work, particularly if she has labored over a project for months.

"I get more excited than my customers," she said. "And every time a piece of my glass goes to a home, a piece of me goes with it."

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