Oak Grove artist Russell Joy finds his passion in stained glass

04/19/2014 8:00 AM

05/16/2014 4:00 PM

For a stained glass artist, it’s not so easy to stage a gallery show.

Take, for example, Russell Joy. While his studio in Oak Grove is a cool place, it’s of little use for experiencing his works. For that he needs to become a tour guide.

A few of his windows are at businesses, restaurants and homes. But mostly they’re at churches, lighting up sanctuaries and chapels, cavernous and intimate, across the metro area. Their themes are sacred and their styles range widely, Medieval to playful.

They tell a story. They say a prayer. They stir a sensation. They do what stained glass does: twinkle, glow, radiate, illuminate.

Joy knows he picked an unusual vocation. He has also kept his business small and old school.

For about 35 years, from start to finish, he has worked by hand. His studio of workbenches and tools is noticeably screen-free; nothing is digital.

The results are unique. The tour will start with Risen Savior Lutheran Church in Basehor, future home to two 18-foot-high windows Joy is making. They will join his window series already in place there.

But first, the 59-year-old doesn’t mind explaining how he came to work with stained glass.

Actually, had he stuck with Plan A, Joy would be a bassoon player in a symphony orchestra. That’s the reason he attended Baldwin Wallace University’s music conservatory near Cleveland. His parents loved music and so did he. Still does.

But a much earlier experience, during one of his first encounters with color television, turned out to be more important than he knew.

Eight-year-old Russell happened to be watching a show that profiled a variety of professions and, oddly enough, featured an artisan working with beautiful glass.

“It fascinated me,” Joy says. “It stuck with me.”

Good thing Joy was watching a newfangled color TV. No doubt the impact wouldn’t have been the same in black and white.

Fashioning sacred scenes

In designing Risen Savior church, which opened in 2011, the congregation had decided on orthodox and traditional. The windows started out as plain glass, but as funds have become available, they are being replaced with Joy’s creations, which depict biblical scenes and themes chosen by church members.

The style, Old World and vivid, is one of Joy’s strong suits — stained glass windows you’d expect to see in centuries-old European churches.

“They’ve built a brand-new church here that looks like it’s 200 years old,” Joy says. “Part of my job is to make the windows look like they’ve always been here, too.”

The intention, says the Rev. Robert Weinkauf, is to create a sacred, inspiring worship space. And that includes museum-quality sacred art and stained glass, he says.

“The idea is one of timelessness,” Weinkauf says, “a way to transcend time and space and culture with images of the Scripture that exclaim God’s word.”

Above the altar, the center window painted by Joy in deep reds, blues and brilliant yellows depicts the Trinity: God the Father, a risen and welcoming Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The three completed side windows illustrate scenes from Jesus’ life.

Roger McDougle, business manager and partner in Joy Stained Glass, points out Joy’s interpretation of Jesus’ face, particularly his expression, in the window titled “Jesus and the Children.”

“Jesus looks happy,” McDougle says. “In so many images Jesus looks stern or at least seriously contemplative. But this is how you imagine Jesus would be.”

Joy admits to being behind on the two windows in the works, apologizing to Weinkauf, who’s anxious for their installation. But the pastor knows the work is painstaking.

Joy explains: He and the client discuss the concept for the window, and Joy makes a small-scale watercolor rendering.

After they agree on the rendering, Joy creates a full-scale “cartoon” of the design — no, not like Saturday morning cartoons or a comic strip.

“Cartoon comes from the Italian for ‘big piece of paper,’ 

” Joy says.

From the cartoon he makes a pattern, much like one in sewing, on heavy brown paper. Each piece, which will be cut from glass, is outlined in black.

And each is assigned a number associated with a glass color. For instance, one piece for a Risen Savior window is marked with 130.8, a pale blue.

Joy cuts up the pattern as a clothes-maker would, using special scissors that also cut away a narrow strip that allows for the lead between the glass pieces.

Each shape is placed on the stained glass, and Joy uses a cutting tool to score the glass around the shape. Most of the glass he uses comes from three makers in the United States and one in Germany.

With a practiced motion, he holds the glass and snaps the cut piece free.

He paints the pieces with special paint, “vitreous paint,” which is ground glass with pigment. The pieces are fired in a kiln, often through several iterations — the high temperature adheres the paint to the window glass. The pieces are assembled to build the scene.

A large window can take two months or more to complete. There are 80 or more studios in the country that can do large church projects, and Joy’s shop is one of very few in the area that handles this kind of commission.

The effects of the complex process can be both bold and subtle.

Joy’s faces are finely detailed, and the glass makes them look almost three-dimensional. The Risen Savior windows hold several scenes, and they are filled with figures, landscapes and symbols.

“There is so much going on in some of these scenes,” Joy says about the project.

At Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Olathe, Joy’s New Testament scenes include enough detail that it’s easy to identify their stories — the Annunciation, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple — but many of the backgrounds are done simply in shades of blue.

Like Risen Savior church, Prince of Peace commissioned Joy to make replacement stained glass for the existing windows.

Before working on the design, Joy spent some time alone inside the spacious and contemporary worship space to contemplate the windows.

“The building will tell you what it wants if you listen,” Joy says.

Problem: Each of the large side windows would hold one scene but was, in fact, two windows with a foot-wide vertical divider in the center.

Solution: Joy drew a circle with painted glass around each scene, fooling the eye so that the divider seems to disappear. He took his cue from an enormous circular window above the church entry.

“For such a massive division in the window, you don’t even see it,” Joy says.

The plan actually occurred to him outside of the church.

“Believe it or not, the whole concept for these windows came to me during a step exercise class,” he says, laughing.

Of animals and a surfboard

After watching that TV show about the stained glass window-maker, Joy became a stained glass hobbyist as a teenager in Canton, Ohio, buying glass as he could afford it and working out of an instruction book.

After the death of a cousin, he told his aunt he wanted to create a window in his cousin’s honor for the church that she and his family attended. It was a simple design, but a big window. The leap of faith was worth it.

He started a small business from home making stained glass cabinet doors and transoms and was later hired on at a big church project in a nearby town.

“I knew I could do it,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do it. It just felt right.”

But the best way to learn the profession was to join a stained glass studio. So he did, first in Pittsburgh, then New York. He came to Kansas City as an artist and designer for a studio here, and when it closed, Joy struck out on his own.

“My work had been well received here, so I stayed,” he says.

Joy’s studio was in Kansas City’s old Northeast neighborhood before he moved to rural Oak Grove in Jackson County, where his two-story frame house and studio, an oversized garage, look out on a pond and meadows.

“My soul feels restful out here,” he says. “I know that sounds corny. But it is peaceful.”

The studio holds three long work tables — he hires help as needed — and slotted shelving where sheets of glass stand ready.

Joy has had commissions around the country — which aren’t on this tour, of course — including at a church in Panama City, Fla., where the pastor asked for a depiction of the Holy Family with one special element: a surfboard. Nice local color, the pastor explained.

Joy’s specialty is scriptural scenes, but he’s good with playful, too.

“It is off to the side,” Joy says about the surfboard, “leaning in the corner.”

At Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, two windows in the chapel have an “All Creatures Great and Small” theme, a tribute to a retiring pastor.

Here was an opportunity for Joy to assemble a glass menagerie: whale, leopard, penguin, seal, alligator, eagle, badger, sea anemone and many other wild creatures — and a Weimaraner, modeled after the pastor’s beloved pet.

That’s the window on the left side. The other window includes a church member’s Yorkie.

“We all liked the mixture of domestic and wild animals,” Joy says.

It was McDougle’s task to find animal illustrations to serve as models, except for the parrot.

“If it reminds you of the Isle of Capri casino parrot, there might be a reason for that,” Joy says.

In the main sanctuary at Rolling Hills, Joy was asked to create windows for a series of biblical parables but to avoid obvious depictions. Viewers would need to consider, even study, the windows.

So Joy went abstract, using shapes and slices of variegated glass rather than painting figures and scenes.

“Look how beautiful this glass is,” Joy says. “I just love it.”

At Spirit of Hope Metropolitan Community Church in midtown Kansas City, Joy designed windows in a contemporary style for the sanctuary — that’s “buff Jesus,” as the window is affectionately known, above the altar — and in the chapel.

Four chapel windows depict four angels of various ethnicities.

“That fits the congregation,” says Joy, who is a former church member. “It’s an eclectic collection of people.”

Joy created the angel figures and their opalescence not with paint but with layers of colored glass, sometimes four or five layers, and by using “drapery glass” for their robes. Only the faces, hands and feet are painted, Joy says.

“I like that the windows are low enough you can touch them,” McDougle says.

“You almost can’t resist,” says Debbie Bird, a director at the church who stopped to meet Russell and hear about the windows.

“You should touch them,” Joy says.

A lasting masterpiece

With music, Joy says, he was willing to flirt and to date but not make a commitment.

Stained glass was different. For him, better.

“I was very passionate about music, or so I thought,” he says, “until I really found out what passion meant.”

For Joy, musical performance was so unforgiving as to be unsatisfying. After hours and hours of devoted practice, one small mistake could wreck a performance, at least for him. And it could never be fixed.

With his windows, his art, he can change courses if the effect isn’t exactly what he wants. He can fix mistakes. When he presents a window, it’s ready for prime time.

And unlike a passing performance, his stained glass windows are always present, to be enjoyed over and over. They’re lasting. They’ll outlast him, he says.

In a way, they’ll always be on tour.

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