Light Fantastic | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Light Fantastic

A great work of art seems effortless, with an inevitability about it; an "of course" almost crosses your lips when you see it for the first time. So it is when looking at glasswork from Pearl River Glass Studios. Great fat tomatoes hang on a fuzzy, chlorophyll-colored vine, surrounded by panels of white and colored glass—some roughly sandblasted, others smoother and painted to achieve tomato-plumping perfection. "'Maters" is one of several panels depicting classic Southern scenes at the Millsaps Avenue studio.

In the almost 30-year-old studio, there is a feeling of falling back centuries into a medieval guild or monastery. Everyone is quietly focused on different projects and different aspects of larger projects while buttressed by the historic undercurrent of glasswork itself. By its very nature, glasswork is old, fundamental, basic—playing with the very essence of light itself—yet also challenging and new with every new technological breakthrough and creative leap. As founder Andrew Young says: "That's what Pearl River is all about: trying to maintain a certain level of knowledge about the technique of stained glass and the history of stained glass."

Local churches display many works from the studio. The day I visited, projects from a small Methodist church, St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral, Christ United Methodist Church and a Lake Caroline residence were housed companionably under one roof. The "Ascension Window" for Christ United Methodist's new church on Old Canton Road in Jackson is based on the historic rose window from Amiens Cathedral in France. It has traditional shape and symbolism such as the Alpha and Omega. Red symbolizes the blood of Christ, while more earthly colors circle the perimeter; spiritual colors reside in the heart of the window itself. Young describes it as a mix of "contemporary and traditional." The outside protective glazing is sandblasted in a traditional tracery pattern while the glass inside is more fragmented and contemporary.

This project manifests the goal Young strives for with each project: "When designing, I try to have a historical knowledge base of Christianity so windows become appropriate and relevant." Young's designs bridge the gap between rich tradition and the contemporary world. Strains of language heard usually from priests or mystics float through our conversation.

When entering a church like St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison—a project Young is particularly proud of in that it marries the ideas of context, intention and transformation—Young expresses the desire "to be transformed and taken to some other realm. All stained glass has the power to be transformative—that is why it is still relevant in the Christian church." His designs make the leap from the temporal realm to the spiritual through his extensive research, study and introspection. His desire to be present spiritually when designing echoes the icon-making process used by the Russian iconographers with whom he has studied. The joy of having so much knowledge and experience at his disposal and fingertips shows in his art. Yet, he says, he "tries to get out of the way" when designing a window so that the "God aspect and experience of it come through in a subconscious way."

Intention and purpose resonate through Young, but there is a peace and humor about him and his work as seen in the Southern series with images of bottle trees, chimneys and beatified tomatoes. "What separates what I do from what you buy at Wal-Mart is the intent behind the object and also the purpose of the object," he says.

Young's enthusiasm ranges from the traditional to new techniques used by the studio for a large installation at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson. Slump glass panels are assembled in the shape of a large, ancient, Byzantine dove. The image is ancient, yet the techniques and scale are contemporary and appropriate for the healing space. Slump glass is essentially melted at 1,000 degrees into a mold. The trick is to cool it properly so the glass doesn't fly apart—the possibilities of shape and gilding are endless.

The difficult mastery of the techniques in glassmaking make it a rare choice for artists who have painterly skills that are more accessible for the artist. Young likes a metaphor from Wordsworth about the paradoxical freedom in the restriction of artistic form: Just as the lead in a window restricts light's movement through colored glass only to transform light itself into a greater image, the confines of the stained glass craft set free the artistic spirit, so it can dance with the light.
The studio is at 142 Millsaps Ave.

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