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Let There Be Light

Oakbrook Esser's stained glass collection on display
at Haggerty Museum of Art

Shorelines - The Enterprise, Oconomowoc, WI
September 30, 2010

Paul Phelps speaks at the opening of the show.
Oakbrook Esser Studio owner Paul Phelps speaks to visitors during the opening night of an exhibit that showcases part of his extensive stained glass collection. The exhibit, titled "Let There be Light," runs through Jan. 2.

Stained glass is something we usually don't have exposure to outside of churches and synagogues, but for stained glass artist Paul Phelps, the historic artform is something that should be raised to a more intimate, accessible level.

Throughout his career as a stained glass artist and owner of Oakbrook Esser Studios, Phelps has amassed a sizeable collection of stained glass pieces, many of which were restored or created at his downtown Oconomowoc studio. Some of his collection is now being shown at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, where Phelps hopes to present the history and artisanship of his craft for the public to enjoy.

"At church, it seems somewhat foreign; you see them, but you can't really see the quality of the brushstrokes," he said. "At the Haggerty, it is really an intimate type of setting. You can stand an inch away if you want to."

Phelps said his love for stained glass began through his interest in working with his hands. Since then, he has built a successful career simply by following his heart.

St. Agnus
This stained glass image, titled "St. Agnus" was created in 1900 by an unknown artist.

He said stained glass has a history that spans over 1,000 years, and he feels it is imperative to preserve historical pieces - as well as the craft itself - for future generations.

"I feel blessed to be able to work in a field that has such a glorious past," he said. "I love the title 'craftsman.' It evokes a time when a person's life was devoted to a trade that was passed down from parent to child - generation to generation - when people worked with their hands and minds, and were proud of what they created."

Exhibition of illumination

The exhibition, titled 'Let There be Light,' runs through Jan. 2 at the museum. Lynne Shumow, curator of education at the Haggerty, said she has been working with Phelps for two years to put on the exhibition. She said they wanted to bring a diverse selection of stained glass to educate the community and Marquette students. Shumow and registrar John Loscuito are teaching a semester-long class based on the exhibit.

"You go to a church or a synagogue, and you see it, but you don't know what the stories are, who the artists are or what the process is," she said. "In creating the show, we wanted to bring the stained glass to the viewer's eye."

Oakbrook Esser created this stained glass piece, titled "Epiphany," in 2003 through 2005. Based on a Janet McKenzie oil painting, the piece depicts the magi visiting baby Jesus as women from various ethnic backgrounds.

The 21 stained glass pieces in the exhibition represent a wide array of styles, subject matter and time periods. The oldest work in the exhibition is a 14th-century French border piece; the most recent work was designed by German artist Johannes Schreiter in 2007 and fabricated by Oakbrook Esser in 2009. The exhibition also features work by Tiffany Studios, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mayer of Munich, Leo Cartwright, Johann Minten, Janet McKenzie and James Walker.

The first room of the exhibit features many traditional, highly-painted pieces, while the second room features more modern pieces, including one based on a design from Johannes Schreiter, who Phelps considers to be one of the greatest post-World War II German designers.

"There's a freshness to them," he said of the more modern works. "It's almost hard to imagine they're the same media because they are so drastically different."

by Johannes Schreiter
A contemporary, untitled stained glass piece was designed by German artist Johannes Schreiter in 2007 and fabricated by Oakbrook Esser in 2009.

"Stained glass has that spiritual perception, but it can be a very broad medium that isn't one dimensional," Phelps said. "It really has countless applications."

The exhibition also reveals rarely seen processes that go into the creation of stained glass including life-size preliminary drawings created by the Jacoby Art Glass Company of St. Louis. The drawings were discovered years later after the company was acquired by Oakbrook Esser. The exhibition will also include small-scale color renderings in gouache, ink and watercolor.

Phelps said the preparatory drawings bring the stained glass trade to a level that people can relate to. The pieces were never meant to be anything more than a means to an end, so they are created on very fragile craft paper that is difficult to preserve.

"They're definitely works of art that hold up on their own apart from the window," he said.

The collection also expands beyond traditional notions of stained glass artwork by featuring Oakbrook Esser's collaborations with artists from outside of the stained glass medium. Phelps said he has collaborated with several other non-stained glass artists, including a California graffiti artist, if their work strikes a chord with him.

The "Let There be Light" exhibit features three stained glass pieces based on the work of Vermont oil painter Janet McKenzie, who creates biblical scenes with people of various ethnic groups. In "Epiphany," one of Phelps' favorites, the magi visiting baby Jesus are women from various ethnic backgrounds.

"It is another dynamic to take an artist outside of our medium and interpret that medium into stained glass," he said. "It is challenging, but those kinds of challenges are good and healthy for developing your own craft and growing."


Here are some more photos from the opening!

opening two
opening three
opening four


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