On a recent Friday morning in the Castleton University Bank Gallery, artist Hallie Richards Monroe did a walk-through of her stained glass exhibit, currently up through June 22.
“It’s an exhibition of two generations,” Monroe said. “This side is my father’s work. He was a commercial illustrator and started doing commercial art in Manhattan in the early ‘40s.”
Both of her parents, Ken and Patricia Richards, were artists, and Monroe picked up the torch when she was young, encouraged to poke around their art studio, which was a converted attic in their home in Montclair, New Jersey.
“I knew early on that because my parents did it, I could do it, too,” Monroe said. “And because they were commercial artists, I thought commercial art is what I wanted to study. I did not think about glass at that time.”
The evolution of her father’s work is revealed in the exhibit, from oversize, cool old commercial ads to bright, Warhol-style vegetables, and detailed paintings of Greenwich Village in Manhattan in the ‘40s.
Monroe’s artistic evolution had its own curve, but once she rediscovered glass, she didn’t look back. She’s been working in stained glass creation and restoration for over 35 years, which is what her side of the room focuses on. But she connects the dots between their work: On Richard’s side, a bright blue painting of a circle of boats in a harbor hangs near an abstract version of the same concept, which looks like shards of glass.
“In that one you can really see how he illustrated it and then he also abstracted it,” Monroe said. “And I see how I can do that in stained glass.”
“I realized there really is a restoration aspect to stained glass,” Monroe explained. “Even if you don’t get to do your own new glasswork all the time, there was a life to be built on restoring the fabric of these beautiful stained glass windows that were done at the turn of the century. I decided to start doing stained glass, and now it’s 35-plus years later and I’m still doing stained glass.”
But Monroe’s work goes beyond the style of windows you see in churches. In one piece, an American flag stained glass window is the backdrop of an amalgam of hand-painted uncanny portraits including Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman.
“There’s usually a story being told,” she said. “Or at least that’s what I hope the viewer sees. Not necessarily the exact story I’m thinking of, but I hope it keeps your eye moving around the composition, trying to unravel what the intent of the images are.”
“When I paint on glass I’m using vitreous paint which is crushed silica and metal oxide,” Monroe explained. “It’s only permanent after I fire it. I can paint and wipe it off until I get it right, and once I love it I fire it. That’s how I brainstorm my idea.”
“I use a couple different techniques, as many as I can pull out of a hat sometimes,” she added. “But to put my windows together I use traditional lead cane, which is pieces shaped like an H and the glass slides in and gets soldered at the intersections. This is how windows have been made to go in architectural settings and churches.”
Near the end of the tour she heads to a workbench set up in the area that used to be the tellers’ station of the bank that once occupied the space. What looks like an architectural blueprint sits beneath a pattern of glass being fit together on top of it like a puzzle.
“That’s my guide, I draw that first,” she says, and then produces a smaller, different kind of piece, the size of a book, which is two pieces of glass plated together, a different image on each side. The final result is one image made from the combination of the two — in this case the plain face of a woman, with a faintly glowing computer circuit board under her skin.
“That can give you some pretty dramatic compositions,” Monroe said. “In my journey it’s pretty amazing to have been able to learn from historical windows, save them, and inspire a new way of looking at stained glass.”