Artistry in glass

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Some artists work with paint, others with charcoal, pastels or clay. Dale Gates works with fragile glass and hot solder – and he loves it.

&uot;There are stained glass artists out there who will tell you that’s the worst thing about doing this type of artwork – things like dripping hot solder on your leg and having it burn a hole through your pants, or cutting your fingers on the glass – but that just doesn’t bother me,&uot; Gates, a Greenville native, says.

He has his own business, Dale Gates Stained Glass, which will celebrate its second anniversary in January 2005.

Email newsletter signup

The stained glass artist creates everything from hummingbird sun catchers and Tiffany-style lamps to custom made panels and windows for churches, homes and businesses.

Gates, wife Cheryl and son Chris live near Braggs in an old farmhouse they are restoring. While Gates is currently using an outbuilding and space in his home to produce his glass creations, he says he plans to build a larger studio space this winter. "I'm going to salvage all these downed cedar trees that fell victim to Ivan," he explains.

‘I’d like to do that’

The Public Broadcasting System has to take some credit for giving Gates the inspiration to pursue his calling.

&uot;Stained glass was something I was always interested in, but I especially remember watching an episode on public TV about it as a kid and thinking, ‘I’d like to be able to do that some day,’&uot; he recalls.

As a student at Greenville High School, Gates studied art for three years with Priscilla Davis.

&uot;Mrs. Davis really taught me a lot about drawing, making use of perspective, composition – and, later, all those things really have come into use for me when I am creating my stained glass patterns,&uot; he explains.

While studying art as a student at Troy State University, Gates had the opportunity to both earn money and fulfill his dream – to learn how to produce stained glass.

&uot;I was looking for a night job…one of my instructor’s former students had his own stained glass business in Troy and was looking for help.

"So I had the opportunity to actually get a job in the art field and work my way through college doing it, instead of having to flip burgers or work in a store the way a lot of kids do…it was something I truly enjoyed,&uot; he explains.

A natural progression

After graduation, Gates worked at Adams Glass Studios in Troy for several years, honing what he considers an art wedded with a craft, before deciding to strike out on his own in 2003. He says it all has seemed to be &uot;a natural progression.&uot;

His favorite work in stained glass, Gates says, is definitely his custom creations. &uot;Custom work gives me the chance to draw an original pattern, which I love to do. I recently completed a panel for a customer featuring a waterfall and mountains in the design and I truly enjoyed that.&uot;

An art and a craft

&uot;The really artistic part of working in stained glass is color selection and drawing your pattern,&uot; he explains, adding, &uot;People at craft shows will sometimes ask me where I got my pattern – and tell them I drew it myself. I like to think that originality sets me apart from some of the hobbyists out there working in stained glass who use patterns from books.&uot;

The &uot;craft&uot; aspect of stained glass, Gates says, is the actual cutting, grinding and assembling of the piece. &uot;The toughest thing I’ve found is getting those measurements just right when you are, say, installing a window in an old house where proportions may be a bit skewed.

&uot;Also, I love the end product when I am making a kaleidoscope – but the construction process can be like pulling teeth. The mirrors inside must be positioned just right if it’s going to work properly. It is definitely nerve-wracking,&uot; he explains.

The Tiffany of stained glass

Traditional stained glass windows, such as those found in Gothic cathedrals, primarily use lead came in their construction. Gates says he generally prefers to work in the more modern copper foil method of stained glass, one first popularized by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the later part of the 19th century.

&uot;The thing I enjoy about working in Tiffany’s style is being able to work with smaller pieces of glass and have more detail in the project. I think the copper foil method allows more creativity, and, also, produces a more substantial piece of work – and that’s important for someone like me who is traveling to arts and crafts shows all over the southeast, packing and unpacking, driving over bumpy roads and so forth,&uot; Gates says.

New horizons, old methods

All stained glass, or art glass as it is sometimes called, is not the same.

&uot;Beveled glass has become very popular…and it’s much more affordable than it was years ago, though it is still a substantial investment for most people.

"And I am now getting into working with glass using a special powdered paint that is actually an acrylic paint with glass-like properties. You coat the glass, fire it in a kiln and the color fuses to the glass…it will not chip or wear off. I’m excited about working with this,&uot; Gates explains with enthusiasm.

While stained glass artists and hobbyists now have access to a special glass saw (&uot;Probably the biggest advent in stained glass in a hundred years&uot;), Gates says he still enjoys working with his traditional glass-cutting tools.

Through trial and error and many, many hours of practice, he has learned how to create successful designs working within the limitations of stained glass. While he regrets the relative absence of stained glass in new church construction, Gates is heartened by the growing popularity of stained glass in homes.

&uot;A lot of people do want stained glass in their homes – it’s a bit of a splurge they want to make in order to be able to enjoy its beauty,&uot; he explains.

‘Take it with a grain of salt’

Though he has won several Best in Category awards at arts and crafts shows, the stained glass artist says he isn’t going to let such honors go to his head.

&uot;It’s nice and I appreciate the honor when I do win, but I take it all with a grain of salt – judging is all very subjective. I’m going to just keep trying to do the best work I can,&uot; Gates says.

While establishing your own business in the arts is always a difficult proposition, Gates says there is that band of people &uot;who do appreciate art and value what you do.&uot;

&uot;These past two years haven’t been easy – but I am doing something I love to do and if I can become truly successful, it will all be worth it,&uot; the artist says.

Gates can be contacted at his studio at (334) 227-0094 or (334) 328-5308.