It started with a broken lantern outside their house, Dorothy Kalahan says. She and her husband John “went to a stained-glass store. We thought we’d buy some glass and have them cut it for us so that it would fit. And we looked around and said, “This is pretty – we can do it.’ So, before we left, we had signed up for lessons.” And they “actually did make little panels to put into that lamp…eventually.”
The lamp was left behind when they moved – it was a stationary one – but the lessons stuck. Their business, Illuminations Glass and Custom Engraving in Bristol, Connecticut, has been going strong for 21 years. The technology has changed, of course. In the beginning, explains Dorothy, their designs called for carbon paper, paper, cardboard, “and wiring things with the carbon-paper drawing around it so that I had more than one cut out. Then we had a pattern to work with.” Now they just do the designs on the computer and print them out to the size they want.
But that’s not the only change. She used to carry a notebook with her and take “copious notes. When I took photos with the film camera, it would be like ‘Writing, writing, writing – picture #1 was of this. And picture #2 was of this, and, oh, I hope that picture comes out.’” Now she carries a digital camera with her “in case some really cute dog walks by or something.” She does some Photoshopping but only if the photo’s too dark for her to make out the lines of her subject. Then she has to “lighten it up. I don’t care if it’s centered. I don’t care if it’s a bit blurry. I just have to see the strong lines of an item – the major lines – to do a design.”
Both Dorothy and John agree that their designs are better constructed and, as a result, hold together better. She does most of the design work, and he does “the majority of the physical labor” – i.e., the glass-cutting and –grinding and soldering. But there’s definitely some overlap. John, who has worked for both Pocket Books (he sold Harlequins) and the phone company before he retired, comes up with a lot of the ideas. Dorothy, who has a full-time job in a medical library, will put the foil on the pieces while she’s watching T. V. at night. “The foil goes on the edges,” she explains, “and then you put the glass back together like it’s a jigsaw puzzle, and you solder it.”
They do commissions. One of their most challenging ones was a stained-glass window commissioned by the University of Connecticut Health Center’s Class of 2004 as a gift for the facility in Farmington. “I said, ‘O. K., what do you want in it?’” Dorothy recalls. “And they said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Something to signify medicine, dentistry…maybe research.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s see. Medicine – a caduceus is a really nice symbol for medicine….’” A little more brainstorming, and they had the design down: a caduceus, a cross-section of a tooth (“So that there would be more detail than just a blob of white,” Dorothy observes.), and an old-fashioned microscope.
Most of their designs are taken from nature, reflecting their appreciation of animals, birds, butterflies, and various flora. A Red Abyssinian cat, her eyes glowing yellow-gold. Two river otters, one resting its paw over the other’s shoulder. A deer entering a clearing. A wolf howling at the moon. Several owl designs, including one of a barred owl, its wings outstretched.
There are back stories to many of these pieces, and John shares some of them. He points out some of the differences between the wolf and deer designs. In a sense, he says, “what we did there was that we created a painting, except that what we do is [more] like a line drawing. We simplify. We have the glass do the work. With the wolf, there’s a lot of moisture, there’s foliage, and there’s reflections. We selected a glass that had a hint of green throughout the blue of the night sky.
“When we look at the doe,” he continues, “she is coming out into the glade in the fall: it’s cold, and the air is dry. And that is reflected in the glass around also. There’s no reflection from any foliage – there’s no greenery – it’s just the cold fall sky. She sees something, and it reflects her environment.” So they not only created “the look of the doe” – they also created the look of the world around her.
It is, he insists, “a living craft. Doing glass, you can see” – he pauses reflectively – “things change. The light will change.” Case in point: a flower design he was working on once. “It had a little green and yellow or blue or something. And I got a hold of some pieces of glass where the colors merged. I mean, it was beautiful. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what happened because I’ve used glass from the same manufacturer since then, trying to get the look, and I’ve never been able to.” It’s almost as though the piece, like a character in a book or on a T. V. show, took on a life of its own. “You become the agent. We make up the stories. And we try to make the things…become.”
He moves on to one of the owl pieces...based, as it so happens, on an owl they saw at a raptor show in New York. “Dorothy took his picture,” John recalls. “The poor fellow didn’t have the moon that night, so we created one for him.” It is “a layered piece. The fat part is a white glass with some clarity to it: we filled it in the back, but the brightest part is where the moon would be. I left that open, and what happens is, it disperses light just like real moonlight would.”
Sometimes it’s a matter of creating a context – of leaving out to give the work dimension, as with this piece. Other times, it’s a matter of altering the original context slightly, as John learned from a plastic thermometer in his grandfather’s tobacco weighing shed many years ago. The thermometer was, he says emphatically, “the ugliest things I had ever seen in my life. I said, ‘Why would you get that?’ He takes it off the wall and holds it up against the light.” And then John saw what his grandfather had seen for a long time: the way the light filtered through that junky old piece of plastic, transforming it. The effect was, he says, very similar to that of stage lights coming through a scrim. “And something like this” – he gestures toward the stained-glass piece – “it’s a little like a stage, too.”
The Kalahans may not have trained as artists per se, but they know their craft inside-out. That’s partly because they do all the design work themselves, Dorothy maintains. “Most people don’t. But because I’ve taught myself to do it, I can see things that need to be there to bring out the animal’s personality, for instance.”
The other part of it – the major lines of it, as she herself might say -- is that the need to create is an almost tangible thing in both of them. “Dorothy and I have always valued creativity more than anything else,” John observes. “I mean, there’s stuff you just do” – he chuckles – “and there are things you create. The latter make things better for others, and you get a lot of satisfaction from doing it.”