A touch of glass

Stained glass artist Paul Damkoehler brings 30 years of experience to his Altamira Art Glass studio

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The events leading up to the discovery of glass more than 1,000 years ago remain shrouded in mystery. One of the more colorful tales involves shipwrecked sailors at night on a beach. After hungrily cleaning fish bones of their meat, they threw them into a roaring fire. As the sailors slept, the combination of bones and sand mixed with the high temperature produced a large piece of glass covering the spot where the fire had been.

It's a fun story, one that master craftsman Paul Damkoehler is happy to recount. His craft, whether you call it stained glass, art glass or leaded glass, has been around since that discovery. However glass came to be, the tools and methods for joining pieces of it with lead have remained relatively unchanged since artisans first practiced the craft.

Despite that apparent simplicity, Damkoehler hasn't run out of new things to learn about stained glass through his more than 30 years of work as a creator and restorer.

Stained glass is, by Damkoehler's definition, "many strips of glass joined by lead." For the last 10 years he's made the almost daily trek from his Brookfield home to his Oak Park studio, Altamira Art Glass, to hone his craft.

Oak Park was a natural fit for his business.

"When they were building this town, stained glass was in vogue," he explains. "The residents appreciate architectural detail."

The bulk of his business is in custom-made residential glass, and Oak Park is a great village for just that customer. "Everybody who is working on their house here wants the best," he says.

Damkoehler's beginnings in the field are fairly happenstance. During his senior year at University of Illinois at Chicago, a friend flew in from California for the holidays to LaGrange, where Damkoehler grew up. The friend was working in an art glass studio and brought with him a handful of tools to create glass trinkets for friends as presents. When he flew back, he left them behind and Damkoehler began to tinker.

A year later, a degree in Colonial American history under his belt, Damkoehler knew that art glass was where his career would veer.

A range of projects

Stained glass, although it's his preferred term, is a bit of a misnomer. Damkoehler buys sheets of glass already brilliantly hued. He keeps a relatively small amount of glass onsite because Oak Park is in driving distance of two of the largest wholesalers in the country.

The range of work he gets at Altamira is broad. One day he might do an onsite repair to a broken pane of colored glass. On another, he might paint a watercolor prototype of a piece he's designed for a church.

The bulk of his work is in new glass for residences and churches, but he also does restoration and repair of anything stained glassâ€"windows, doors, fixtures, mosaics, even kitchen cabinets. In fact, Damkoehler's happy to oblige whatever stained glass request comes his way.

When Trinity College in Palos Heights contacted him about a new building under construction, the windows had already been planned and couldn't be adapted to hold leaded glass. Instead, he hung six panels of stained glass in sections roughly 4-feet wide by up to 17-feet tall, a foot from the existing windows, to create the effect of stained glass without the construction nightmare. It took months of work with a staff of four to complete the project.

Most recently, he's been working on a set of four pieces of stained glass for the 50th anniversary of Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side.

The project encompasses the many facets of his work. Over a year ago, he met with church members to discuss budgetâ€"the project was to be funded by donors not yet lined upâ€"timeline, and most importantly design. The result was four windows with a similar design: bold red and blue on the outside framing pastel diamonds with a medallion, or large diamond, in the middle, each with a different religious icon.

Damkoehler's watercolor mock-up sat in the church for several weeks, slowly opening enough wallets to build the first window. It was installed on a Friday. The following Sunday, after the service, enough donations came in to build the remaining three. They were installed a few weeks ago, in time for the anniversary.

But Damkoehler didn't just design and build the windows, he was also involved in the installation.

"The window is not a hunk of plywood; it requires skill to get it to the site and weather-proofed," he says. Each installation has its own unique needs and Damkoehler works to make every window not only beautiful, but practical and useful for the owner with custom installation solutions.

The importance of light

His studio is surprisingly uncluttered. Three large tables serve as work stations for assembling large patterns. A small kiln on wheels can be moved as needed for firing patterns or words onto pieces of glass. And of course there are the shelves of glass, glass cutting and soldering tools. And there's one other tool at the front of the shopâ€"the floor to ceiling windowsâ€"that provide the light for cleaning and detailing finished pieces.

Damkoehler is fond of saying that stained glass is 5 percent sand and 95 percent sunlight. Light is perhaps the wild card in stained glass. A bright but indirect north light is desirable for shining glass all day. But there's no mistaking the dramatic effect of an early morning east light, viewed from a pew on a Sunday morning, as it hits the deep reds and blues often found in church windows.

Learning from history

Damkoehler has been studying and reading about stained glass for as long as he's been creating it.

"I've read volumes of books, both the know-how and history of stained glass," he says.

And although he hasn't yet traveled to Europe to study the work of the masters, he's found plenty of quality examples in and around Chicago. A favorite of his is the work of renowned stained glass craftsman Charles Connick in Union Church in Hinsdale.

The church hired Connick early in his career for a pictorial piece of a "pretty angel with a pink face," as Damkoehler describes it. Connick then traveled across the pond to study medieval windows. When he returned he was no longer working in his earlier style, which he referred to as the "purple horrors." The church then commissioned a second piece from Connick, this one in a very different, more mature style.

"There was a lot that the ancients knew that was forgotten and rediscovered by astute students," Damkoehler says.

Part of that is understanding what designs work best in the medium of glass. As Connick and Damkoehler have learned, the pictorial scene is not necessarily one of them.

"Outlines are not in nature. When you draw a picture like that you have to be sort of ashamed of the lead lines," Damkoehler explains. "Real art glass lovers like the lead line."

Stained glass best tells a story through simple symbols.

"Don't depict a saint, but what they represent," Damkoehler says.

He's done work in many churches, but finds Greek Orthodox assignments require the most studying and research.

"They wouldn't let me do it if I didn't know the meaning of the icons," he says.

And this is where another modern tool helps him in his creations: the Internet. What used to mean multiple trips to the library for research and reference pictures can now be done quite quickly in the studio with a good search engine.

In this way, he's able to combine his two passions: leaded glass and history.

"I think you can pursue this for a lifetime and not know all of it," Damkoehler says.

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