Winona company makes glass into art

A window of color
Blocks of colored glass enhance the view from this window in the Willet Hauser glass studio in Winona, Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

The whine of a grinder mixes with the staccato notes of a hammer, chipping away fragments from thick chunks of glass.

"You gotta have the angles right," says Steve Giebel, one of the 70 or so artists at the Willet Hauser company. He's here, at the Winona studios. There's another facility in Philadelphia.

Noda's artwork
New York artist Takayo Noda shows some of her illustrations, which are being transformed into faceted glass panels at the Willet Hauser studios.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

Giebel looks like he's working on a huge, multi-colored jigsaw puzzle -- taking slabs of glass, cutting them into various sizes, then paring away the edges with his special hammer to make sure they fit into the design.

The glass pieces have angles cut into them, much like a jewel would, which catches the light. Thick, black epoxy will be poured over the glass pieces to hold them together in a mosaic.

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Giebel is working on a table-sized segment of a glass panel that'll soon be a part of the daily commute of many New Yorkers. The work of art will be installed in one of the many New York transit stations that are being remodeled.

Jim Hauser and his company has been playing a key part in those renovations.

"I think we've done 26 or 27 projects so far," says Hauser. "We've got four or five stations in the studio right now, and we're negotiating for a sixth one."

Putting the pieces together
Greg Wignes puts the pieces in place for a large stained glass panel.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

The task for the Willet Hauser glass artists? Taking the works of painters and illustrators selected for the "Arts for Transit" program, and transforming them into glass. at first, it wasn't an easy job.

"We were getting designs from people who had never done faceted glass. I'd start tearing my hair out and say, 'We can't do that in faceted glass, it is too limiting,'" Hauser says. "We had to spend so much time educating people as to the way it would go, but, we found out that there was a synergy, we learned from each other."

One of the New York artists visiting the Winona studios is Takayo Noda. She illustrates children's books.

"This is a picture of a crocus and butterflies," Noda explains as she describes one of her illustrations. The picture on paper is going to become a vibrant, faceted glass mosiac for a subway station in Brooklyn.

Noda says creating something for glass instead of paint required her to rethink her art.

Bird's nest
This glass piece features a scene with trees and birds.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

"Paint is on the paper, and the glass -- you have to see through sunlight, so I have to really adjust my concept of a color," she says.

Noda also had to adjust her geographic compass, when she found out her illustrations would come to life in the small town of Winona, Minnesota.

Which begs the question -- why is the country's largest stained glass company in Winona, along with a number of other art glass firms? The answer lies with Jim Hauser's dad, who started the business after World War II, repairing stained glass windows in small churches.

"My father could never cut a piece of glass in his life. He was an entrepreneur, a businessman," explains Hauser. "He saw an opportunity, a business opportunity, is what it boiled down to."

The business grew to include the purchuse of the venerable Willet glass studios of Philadelphia in the 1970s.

Cherub closeup
Half of Willet Hauser's business is restoration and repair of antique glass, such as this Tiffany church window, and the other half is creating new works of faceted glass art.
MPR Photo/Cathy Wurzer

The smaller glass studios in Winona were founded, mainly, by former Willet Hauser workers.

The New York transit system project is one of the biggest for Willet Hauser. Its artisans have been working on this project for the past eight years, and the steady stream of business has translated into revenue for the company of more than $500,000 over those years, with more to come.

"In the spring, I'm definitely going out there and will ride the subways with my camera!" Hauser says.

In addition to the transit station glass panel projects, Willet Hauser also restores and repairs stained glass windows -- including some wonderful and very valuable Tiffany windows.

As for the future, Hauser says more public art is being done using faceted glass. More builders are putting stained glass into private homes. But even as the business grows, and digital technology makes its way into a centuries-old art, the craft remains the same.

"Once we get beyond the design stage with a computer, we get into painting the glass and cutting the glass, the techniques are almost the way they were a thousand years ago."