With all the time, patience, attention to detail and skill required, it’s not hard to imagine that the art of stained glass could be a technique at risk of becoming lost over the ages.
Not if the Donoho family can help it.
For more than 40 years, Limestone-based business Artistry In Glass has been creating, repairing and restoring stained glass pieces — from church windows to art glass panels, light fixtures, sun catchers and everything in between.
It’s specialized work.
A search for stained glass shops will return few results in East Tennessee, and the Big Limestone Road shop run by father-and-son duo Richard and Bill Donoho is the only one close to Greene County offering repair services.
It’s also a place where students, many enrolled through Washington College Academy, can learn to cut and piece together stained glass or painted and fused art glass techniques. The shop’s doors are open to students at least three days a week.
“It does take a lot of attention to detail, but it’s all learnable. We let people learn at their own pace — by doing,” Bill Donoho said during a recent interview.
BORN OF NECESSITY
It is perhaps “learning by doing” that best describes the entire history of Artistry In Glass.
It was either 1971 or 1972 when Richard Donoho did exactly that when his church, Salem Presbyterian, couldn’t afford the monumental cost of having an imposing 11-foot diameter stained glass window repaired.
Donoho purchased books and materials and resolved to learn the art form himself. Restoration of the massive round window with its wedge pattern and intricate design was his inaugural project.
Fully restored and still completely in tact, it speaks to the quality of his handiwork from the beginning.
It’s also a testament to his love for the Limestone community. He first arrived, from Asheville, North Carolina, in 1949 to attend Washington College Academy where he met his late wife, Freda. He returned to the community after his service in the U.S. Navy, and hasn’t left since.
He remains dedicated to Washington College Academy, where he serves on the board of directors, and Salem Presbyterian Church, where his work is a key feature of the building’s architecture.
“The window frame had rotted out of it. It was all slate roofing on the church at that time, and we had to put scaffold across of it to take it out. We rebuilt it in our basement, before we even had a shop,” Richard Donoho said. “It was all original. The church was finished in 1895, and the first wedding was held in ’96. They didn’t have windows and had to put pine bales in to keep snow out of the wedding.”
WORK IN MANY CHURCHES
The Donohos can tell similar stories about churches throughout Greene and Washington counties, where their artistry is shown in some sanctuaries’ most prominent features.
Works like the “Christ in the Garden” window at Bales Chapel United Methodist Church and a doorway dedicated to late Cedar Creek Presbyterian Church pianist Marianna Powers LaRue feature original art by the Donohos.
Others, like a historic, massive three-panel window depicting Jesus of Nazareth as a shepherd at Bulls Gap United Methodist Church, remain in place to be appreciated for another century because of intricate repair work.
That piece — which the church building was built around itself — was damaged by vandals and required careful color matching and hand-painting — a technique that uses crushed glass — to restore, Bill Donoho explained.
PASSING IT ON
Projects taken on by the Donohos are split about evenly between new work and repair work. But teaching others about stained glass is as important a part of the business as any.
At least three days each week, students of varying ages and skill levels stop by the studio to learn and work on their own pieces.
They see the process through from beginning to end — starting with patterns and cutting smaller pieces from large sheets of colorful glass, grinding sharp edges and placing them on layouts.
From there, the techniques vary, based on whether the traditional H-grooved lead binding is used or if pins and copper foil are employed, as Louis Tiffany, of famed Tiffany Studios, did.
“We are constantly learning, and it is a lot of trial and error,” said Bill Donoho while looking over stained, fused, painted and etched glass artwork pieces in varying stages of completion.
Many of the techniques used in the shop require extreme precision.
Those involving glass kilns, like fused and painted glass, are particularly tricky.
“You have to buy glass that is compatible with whatever you’re working on,” Bill Donoho said, explaining that different glass makers use different formulas, and not every type can bond together. “If we’re working on a special project, it can require many test runs.”
It can be painstaking and costly — especially for a business that aims to keep its overhead costs low so that handcrafted artisanal pieces are available to customers throughout the area at reasonable prices.
Breakage, an obvious risk when working with glass, eats into the bottom line. Even something as simple as opening the lid to the kiln “just to check on it” can destroy hours or days worth of work, Bill Donoho explained.
“Glass is tempermental, and, obviously, fragile. It will break with the slightest disturbance,” he said, adding with a laugh, “We always say we’ll try anything once, but there are some we don’t ever want to do again. The biggest lesson here is ‘Don’t cry over broken glass.’”
LOVE FOR THE WORK
For both Richard and Bill Donoho, art glass isn’t a job — it’s a love.
Both have had successful careers as public servants. Richard Donoho is retired from Washington County EMS, where he was director. Bill Donoho remains a paramedic for the Kingsport Fire Department, and plans to continue working with glass after he retires.
The family matriarch, the late Freda Donoho, also began working in glass after her retirement, making many fused glass pieces — jewelry, in particular.
Some of her work remains on display at the shop, among a variety of art glass pieces for sale.
“We are hoping the business remains lucrative,” Bill Donoho explained. “
The addition of glass etching has opened more opportunities. Commercial jobs, like numerous etched pint glasses for a Kingsport brewery and etched windows for a chain with multiple Tri-Cities locations, as well as etching for trophies and various gifts, are now part of the business.
Sublimation printing — a special process using heat to transfer dye onto fabric, plastic and other materials — is also available at the shop, meaning a range of products that can be customized with any image after available to customers.
The shop’s front window serves as a showcase of art glass, etched glass and customized print work, suitable for all manner of gifts, Bill Donoho said.
But, most important to the family is that they are preserving and passing along an art form that’s been perfected over hundreds of years.
“We just want to pass on our experience that we’ve gained working in glass over the years,” Bill Donoho said. “Once you learn the basics of it, it passes on to the next piece and keeps building on itself.”