June 9, 2005
Albany--- People love to look at stained glass windows, but have you ever met someone who makes them? Few people have.
Craftsmen built each window by hand until machines were developed to do the time consuming, mundane work. An Albany man won't let the craft become mechanized, insisting on doing it himself to help keep an old art form from extinction.
Jim Thomas' workshop looks rather odd compared to others. His creative workspace is clean and neat, very organized with a few pieces of equipment ready to work. In here, a big idea took shape. "I was amazed by the stained glass windows," says Thomas, as he finished cutting a piece of blue stained glass.
An amazement unbroken for the past 18 years, as Jim Thomas tries to extend the life of a dying art form. "It's very labor intense art," says Thomas, where something can go wrong instantly. "Lot's of times you spend hours and hours, and break a piece and its wrong," says Thomas after successfully breaking a piece that needs the sharp edges removed.
He insists on the old way, grinding each piece to perfection, soldering it in place as he's done thousands of times with disappointing results. "I never get it exactly like I want it," says Thomas. As he gained experience, he noticed something special happens.
Each piece of glass seems to have a life of its own. "The glass changes color when the light hits it," says Thomas as he puts a piece of stained glass on a light box and turns on the light. It looks totally different. The light brings out some of the glass' colors that were unnoticeable before.
A creative dimension not everyone notices. "Changes color all day long," says Thomas explains how the sun's movement influences what the window looks like. Big projects don't scare him at all. He wanted stained glass images of two ducks for his home and he took lessons to learn how to make them.
The instructor thought he would try something much smaller, but not Jim. He knew what he wanted and created them. His first creations sit in his workshop for refurbishment. He used copper foil to hold the pieces together long ago, and wants to use lead now.
There was another big risk. His stained glass creation nine feet tall and six feet wide provides the visual focal point in the new Gillionville Baptist Church.
He gave a thousand hours of his personal time to make the stained glass window, and paid three thousand dollars of his own money to buy the glass. Jim Thomas could have taken the easy way out by donating money to the church for a stained glass creation, but he wanted to do it.
Was it what he had in mind to build? "The overall theme is exactly the way I envisioned it," says Thomas. Even though he sees some flaws only a perfectionist would notice. "I'd change this, I'd change that. I'd do something different," says Thomas, who built the colorful creation for an unselfish reason.
"What I do is a labor of love. I do it for the sheer joy of building a piece," says Thomas. Small lead strips soldered together to hold it together. "I get more out of giving," says Thomas as he looks at his creation. Sacrificing his time and talents, taking colorful glass and making something come alive that seemed dead.
It can happen in a master's hands. Jim Thomas doesn't sell any of his creations. He gives them all away.