MIKE HARDEN Stained-glass artist concentrates on his message

Michael Whapham remembers precisely what led him to his youthful fascination with stained glass: Boredom.
Sitting through yet another bloviating homily by his great-uncle, pastor of a German Lutheran Reformed Church in Wooster, he began studying the sanctuary windows. The motif was largely symbols and design patterns, as opposed to religious figures and scenes.
"I spent so much time in church when I was a kid," Whapham said last week from Franklin Art Glass Studios, in Columbus. "Long sermons."
He was yet a youth when he glimpsed his first human figures in stained glass -- a chapel-window tableau in which a genial Christ in a gothic doorway welcomed a '60s-vintage Cleaver clan to worship.
Whapham could not have known then that one day he would craft windows sufficiently captivating to spare another generation of squirming pew sitters from falling victim to ecclesiastical narcolepsy.
"It creates an atmosphere that you don't experience anywhere else," Whapham said of an art for which technique and tools have remained essentially unchanged for 900 years.
"Apart from the steel-wheeled glass cutter and an electric soldering iron, a glazer from the Middle Ages would feel pretty comfortable in a modern glass studio," Whapham said.
Learning the trade
For him, crafting stained glass was an avocational frolic after he moved from Wooster to attend Ohio State University.
His first piece, cobbled from scrap stained glass, was a pair of potted tulips. He started work at the glass studio after college, beginning as a cutter, knifing out the patterned glass.
"That's pretty good," his boss would tell him just before throwing the cut glass in the trash. "Try again."
For a long time, he turned out the Tiffany-style lampshades for Wendy's restaurants. The art studio produced 45,000.
His chief tutor was Columbus' premier stained-glass artist, Wilhelm Kielblock.
Kielblock had been a stained-glass apprentice in Germany before being conscripted into the Kaiser's army. He was sketching army life in an art book during a break in the siege of Verdun when a trench wall collapsed and buried him alive.
He fled the post-war depression in Germany for Columbus and a job at Franklin Art Glass. In time, two brothers he left behind were conscripted to fight for the Third Reich. Both died, as did Kielblock's only son, Albert, a U.S. soldier fighting Hitler in Europe.
After that, although Kielblock created stunning windows depicting God's beneficence, he had a few reservations about the deity's power to stop evil.
"He was really the art of Franklin Art," Whapham said of his mentor, Kielblock. "Each thing he taught me was like a drop of gold. The whole idea of controlling the light and painting with light."
In stained glass, half an artist's palette is the sun.
"We call it God's light," said Franklin proprietor Gary Helf. "It makes a cafeteria a church."
Vibrant hues
Whapham said the most magical colors in stained glass are red and blue.
"They are the most distinguishable from the greatest distance. It is just the way your eyes read color."
He sketches, traces, paints and fires -- Christ the Good Shepherd, Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane, Christ Knocking at the Door.
He glazes a saint's face opaque, then etches away the glaze to shade, shadow and delineate. On the crudest of levels, it is what a child does with an Etch-A-Sketch.
He recently did several replacement heads for stained-glass saints in a Mansfield church after an emotionally disturbed man poked out the eyes of the pious figures.
Some weeks ago, digging through the studio's archives of window sketches, he was stopped in his tracks. It was Jesus welcoming the Cleavers to church.
Though he never knew it, the first stained glass to truly enchant him in his youth was turned out by the man who would one day become his mentor.
Like Kielblock, Whapham doesn't sign his work. The artist is not important, he says. It's the message of the art.
XHarden is a columnist at the Columbus Dispatch.

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