Issaquah artists combine faith, flair to create stained-glass masterpieces

June 28, 2012

By Christina Lords

Jim Perry, 82, holds a sheet of red-layered clear glass up to the light in the Perry Stained Glass Studio workroom at 470 Front St. N. By Greg Farrar

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, the oldest permanent structure in Chelan, is nestled near the southern tip of the 55 mile-long lake that bears the same name.

The chimes that ring out from its dark-brown bell tower audibly undulate throughout the area, and worn, wooden pews line the aisle of a structure that has been a place of worship for residents since the 1890s.

Two such devotees are Issaquah’s Jim and Liz Perry.

Their part in the structure — though only a few of the church’s faithful know the story behind their contributions — are lasting, resplendent and illuminating.

The leaded glass windows with carefully etched medallions and selected hues depicting sacraments and church seasons were made here in the couple’s Front Street stained glass studio.

Jim and Liz escape from Issaquah each Thursday to make the drive to their weekend home in Chelan, where Liz is originally from, to worship at St. Andrew’s on Sunday.

“I don’t really necessarily try to avoid telling people, but it’s not me to really promote myself as their maker there,” Jim said. “I’m not that enamored with myself.”

• • •

The couple first met in the Seattle area when Jim was stationed here for military police work through the Army before traveling to California so Jim could attend school for police training.

“I came from a family of Midwest famers and people that did a lot of everything,” he said. “I had made a scale-model of a church that our congregation was building in Santa Clara and the fella who owned the stained glass business there came by to get some ideas for windows … eventually I went to work for him part time.”

After tinkering in the shop and learning the art of stained glass for several years, the couple returned to the Pacific Northwest, opening Perry Stained Glass Studio in 1971.

More than 40 years later, more than 120 major stained glass projects have come out of the studio, including windows with traditional, contemporary and faceted glass designs that enrich places of worship up and down the West Coast, as well as Arizona, Alaska, Nebraska and New Hampshire.

And those are only the projects listed in the studio’s trifold brochure.

“When people ask how many windows we’ve done, it’s kind of like what my son tells people when they ask him how many pieces of glass are in a stained glass window,” he said. “He says, ‘only amateurs count.’”

While the couple attends some church conventions and maintains a website, most of their new business comes from word out mouth, Jim said.

“Priests tend to get changed from one church to another,” he said, “so sometimes one will see a window and ask where it came from.”

The couple works as a team to complete each project, with Jim doing the brunt of the glass cutting and Liz and their son, who also works out of the studio, adding paint detail to complete a project.

• • •

Although the studio has produced windows for Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist, Baptist and several other kinds of churches and worship space, including Jewish synagogues, every window the couple does has something in common — it tells a story.

“It started out being a teaching tool before people could read back in the Middle Ages,” Liz said. “Now it’s become more decorative, although it’s still used as a teaching tool with certain saints. There’s always a story that refers to the Bible. Most subjects come out of the Bible one way or another.”

Windows at Fall City United Methodist Church include depictions of the Parables of Jesus (left) and the Centennial Window (above the altar). By Greg Farrar

Many churches start fund drives to have new windows installed or families often commemorate a loved one with memorial windows — such as the ones in St. Andrew’s.

But Jim said demand for stained glass has slowed considerably with the downturn of the economy. When the couple first opened the studio, most of the demand was solely for traditional design, which generally includes religious figures such as Jesus Christ, Mary and recognizable saints. Now their work includes contemporary design and work for people’s homes.

“In the last three years, there hasn’t been that much church building,” Jim said. “The thing with stained glass is normally when they need a new building it may be figured into the budget, but when the building goes over budget, the first thing that goes out the window is the stained glass.”

Projects tend to take two to three months, depending on the size and scope of work, but some, like the three-window project they’re working on now — bound for Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City, Calif. — has taken about a year. They’ve already completed about 20 windows for that church and may do more.

As frequently as possible, Jim and Liz like to see the process through from start to finish, crating up each piece and installing it themselves. They attend as many of the windows’ dedications as possible.

“I’ve seen two or three jobs where they’ve hired somebody else to install them and the two figures are supposed to be looking at each other and they were turned around so that Christ is looking at one end of the church and Lazarus is looking at the other,” Jim said, chuckling lightly. “The panels are marked right and left from the inside, and when they install them from the outside, right becomes left and left becomes right.”

But when an installation goes the way it should and the pieces are finally in place, the rest of the arduous process falls away, Liz said.

“I may have worked on them and painted them and seen them in the studio, but when they get installed in the church, they look completely different,” she said. “It’s like seeing them for the first time. It’s like they’re where they’re supposed to be. ”

Stained glass, from start to finish

Long before installation, each project starts from a rough idea or sketch.

  • Every project starts off with a preliminary color design — traditional designs are done by an independent artist in Bristol, England; contemporary work is designed by a designer in University Place — that goes to the client for approval and slight modifications.
  • The approved design is blown up to a full-sized black-and-white drawing, known as a cartoon.
  • The cartoon is color-coded, not unlike a paint-by-number book, so Jim knows which piece of colored glass goes where.
  • Jim then makes cutlines, which reveal the size and shape of each piece of glass that will be used in the final piece.
  • The colored glass, which comes from an array of sources including providers in Seattle, West Virginia and Germany, is cut over a backlit table to ensure proper size and shape.
  • Each piece of glass is marked off when cut and finished to ensure multiple pieces of glass aren’t made for the same space.
  • A subject’s facial details and other detailed painted work are added next. A mixture of iron oxide and powdered glass is fused right into the surface of the glass to give life and texture to aspects such as facial features and a subject’s garment folds.
  • Those pieces are then finalized and fired in a kiln.
  • The pieces are taken out of the kiln, and then leaded together into a window panel.
  • The joints of a window must be soldered together to ensure stability of the piece.
  • The window is sealed with a mixture of putty and paint thinner to make it waterproof.
  • The window is then carefully packaged, crated and hauled to its final destination for installation.
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