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While some take ideas spun by their muses to a canvas or a sketchbook, artist and teacher Frank Plichta takes a cutting tool to sheets of stained glass, slicing and splicing the pieces to form mosaic masterpieces.
In the glass-cutting studio inside Chestnut Creek School of the Arts (CCSA) in Galax, an hour before his first class of the year, Plichta stayed busy filling recycled pizza boxes with supplies for his students as he talked about when he first picked up the hobby.
“This,” he said, tipping up a rounded floral design on the studio’s work table, “was the first piece I ever did. It’s the one I learned on in a class I took in 1988.”
Pulling out a photo album, he flipped through the pages, showing his progression as he continued to learn the craft. “I number all of my pieces for the year, then I start over at the beginning of the next year. Gives me an idea of what I did and what’s happened to it.”
The idea to take an art class was first suggested by his wife, Sharon, who at the time was concerned about the stress he was under because of his job. “My wife said, ‘you need to find a hobby, or you will have a stroke.’”
Plichta found a place in Durham, N.C., that taught stained glass. He signed up and attended the sessions for several weeks, and soon became hooked on the art form.
The hobby has been a constant for Plichta since then, save for six years when he broke away to work on another project. After moving to the Galax area, he joined up with CCSA and has been involved with the school in one form or another since it first opened.
In 2012, he began offering stained glass classes through the school.
“When the bug bites you, you want to do something more significant next time,” he said.
Turning a page in the album, he pointed to his fourth design, then his sixth, noting that each design had more pieces, each cut smaller than the last to form a more intricate pattern.
The sixth design was a detailed etching of an eagle, which he made for his daughter’s school, Cresset Christian Academy in Durham. “Their mascot was an eagle, and I had the idea of making this as a gift. It’s still hanging in the school today,” he said.
He pointed to the wings. “If you look, you can see the word ‘eagle’ spelled out in the wings.”
Over the years, Plichta has sold, gifted and built on commission a number of stained glass pieces, including mirrors, windows, lamps and wall hangings.
Hardly any two pieces are ever the same. “Doing the same pattern over and over is like reading the same book over again.”
At home, he converted part of his basement into a studio, where he hides out when he gets a spark of creativity. The rooms of his home are accented with art pieces that are too special to give away or sell. However, he doesn’t mind bringing them out to show his students.
He walked over to one of the many lamps that were lined up on one side of the room, and picked up a large, Tiffany-style lamp. “This will be buried with me,” he said.
He wasn’t sure exactly how long it took to put the 460 pieces together, but it was one of the biggest projects he’s ever finished.
When asked about the process involved with stained glass, Plichta began with a summary of its history. Dating back to the Middle Ages, Plichta said that stained glass windows were used to create pictorial representations of The Bible, as most of the population was illiterate. Back then, pieces were set in a heavier skeletal frame called lead came.
Opening a box, Plichta took out a sample of lead came, and fitted a piece of glass in the groove to show how they fit. While this method was functional, the glass was too heavy, making pieces difficult to maneuver and extremely easy to break.
Later on, a man named Louis Comfort Tiffany came up with the easier method of using copper foil, which is used to wrap around the edges of the glass. When the pieces are finished, they are welded together using a melted metal alloy, a process known as soldering.
To demonstrate the process, Plichta took a piece of clear glass, and used a cutting tool to carve out a curved shard.
“Now, cutting a straight line is easy, because you can simply break them apart,” he said as he ran the cutting tool down the length of the glass and snapped it easily with his hands.
“A curved cut needs to be broken apart using a special tool called running pliers.” He took out the pliers, with specialized rounded edges that easily clamp onto the glass and put pressure along the seam, causing it to break apart easily.
Once he had the piece cut out, he took it to a grinding machine to smooth out an edge that he’d cut incorrectly. “The grinder can fix some things, but sometimes you’ll find that it’s less time-consuming just to cut a new piece,” he said.
Finishing the shard, he took a roll of copper and fitted the adhesive side to the edge,wrapping it around the glass as he went.
Putting pieces together is an exact science, he explained, The pieces have to fit together as closely as possible, or they won’t be soldered together properly.
He picked up an unfinished design and flipped it over to show an example. Between two pieces of the wrapped glass, he pointed out a tiny gap. “I’ll need to put some copper wire in that spot before I solder it,” he said, “or [the metal] will fall through.”
When coming up with a design, Plichta noted that every piece of glass is different, so it is important to figure out what piece should go where before cutting out the shapes.
“We have a limited supply of colors here, but the color range of glass is almost endless,” he said. To save students from having to cut a brand new sheet for just one color, scrap pieces are thrown into boxes to be re-used later.
Plichta stood and walked to a row of shelves, where sheets of glass were sorted out by color. Reaching for one, he suddenly winced as a sharp edge slashed through his finger.
“Well, I get a red star,” he said. Shaking his head, he calmly walked over to the sink to rinse and wrap the cut. “In my class, cuts get you a red star, and burns [courtesy of the soldering irons] get you a yellow star.”
He pulled out two essentials that he keeps in the studio at all times. “Hydrogen peroxide and Band-Aids: I always have them.”
To keep the star count to a minimum, Plichta shows his students how to carefully handle the materials, and encourages them to take their time. “I usually outdo them [with stars] because I want to work a little faster,” he said.
Once artists are well-versed in the basics of stained glass, Plichta listed a number of different projects the art form could be used to make. “Your flat pieces are mainly windows, sidelights, lamps, windows and mirrors. When you get into 3D shapes, you can do lampshades, jewelry boxes, business card holders, sun catchers, Christmas decorations on trees... anything that is two-or three-dimensional you can do with glass,” he said.
Although Plichta’s hobby has grown significantly over the years, it is still his go-to activity for when he needs to wind down. “It’s relaxing... you have to be patient doing it and you have to be very meticulous. Once I got back into this, I wanted to do it more and more. That’s why I enjoy teaching — it has given me a chance to do more of this.”
• For more information about future stained glass classes offered through CCSA, visit www.chestnutcreekarts.org.