Color, light, and spirit

Barney Zeitz
Barney Zeitz's massive window will be installed at the Maple Grove Cemetery, Kew Gardens, Queens, N.Y.

By Pat Waring - May 24, 2007

When Barney Zeitz received a commission for a monumental stained glass window the first thing he did was build a big new studio to accommodate it. For Mr. Zeitz, an accomplished Island stained glass artist, it has always come naturally to try something new in response to the challenge at hand. In this case, the challenge called for a room and glass wall large enough for him to construct and work on a 15-by-17-foot multi-panel stained glass window, a commission for the Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, N.Y. Feeling pressed for time, although his deadline was nearly a year off, he began work on several of the individual two-by-three-foot panels while doing the carpentry for the new studio addition.

"A year ago it was just a hole in the ground," Mr. Zeitz laughs, gesturing around the two-story cement-floored room connected to his Vineyard Haven home. He will host an Open Studio this weekend, giving Vineyard neighbors a first look at the striking piece.

Despite the busy, cluttered look of the studio - the long work table heaped with tools and materials, and other projects; despite the various pieces of art in corners and on shelves; and despite the fascinating stories Mr. Zeitz tells, it is the vast window itself that immediately captures one's attention and holds it fast. Stretching from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the 35-panel piece depicts men and women walking along the bank of a river, a swath of green trees, soft boulders, hills, a shadowy hint of cityscape in the background and above all a sweep of blue sky.

Barney Zeitz
Barney Zeitz high above the ground, before the work that has been his creative focus for months. "It's a major project for me and very meaningful too," he says. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Yet it is not the literal landscape that strikes the viewer so much as the feeling of the piece, the flow. A comforting, serene softness combines with an energy that lends the scene an otherworldly glow and electrifies the sky where barely distinct beings dart and swoop. Are they birds? Angels? Spirits? Even Mr. Zeitz himself cannot say for certain. He had a broad intuitive vision for his design and it was to this vision that he strove to remain true through months of painstaking work: drawings, experiments, trials, errors, revisions, and adjustments. One can feel his excitement as he attempts to describe what he wanted to convey, and his frustration that in essence his idea is far beyond words. But there it is, on glass, stretched across the wall in front of us.

Combining landscape, architecture, humans whose features are classic and simply defined, and the movement of ambiguous spirit creatures above, Mr. Zeitz says he aimed to represent a multiple reality - "being in this world and acknowledging the spirit world at the same time." Shapes blend easily into one another, some are barely solid, their edges fading into air.

Barney Zeitz
With its images of people, trees and buildings, rocks and a river, and a light-filled sky, the window evokes a sense of peace.

"The borders get blurred, they are not as clear as what we think of as real life," says Mr. Zeitz. "The people are part of a city, but they're part of a landscape at the same time."

There is a circular format to the design in the very center of which is a space of clear, light glass. Round, shadowy shapes recur, sometimes stones, sometimes human heads, moons, architectural elements.

"There's no difference between boulders and people on a spirit level," Mr. Zeitz muses.

A meaningful project

Mr. Zeitz, a self-taught glass artist (he learned from books!) and metal sculptor, has lived and worked on Martha's Vineyard since 1972. His first studio was in a small building on Dukes County Avenue in Oak Bluffs, in the heart of what is now the arts district. Even then it was a community of working artists. Today he lives with his wife, Phyllis Vecchia, off State Road in Vineyard Haven and maintains his studio there. Ms. Vecchia's life also revolves around the arts as she teaches theater workshops for youngsters. Both are avid supporters of the arts and arts education. The couple have two children, Kaela and Elliott.

Barney Zeitz
The artist at his workbench makes a meticulous adjustment.

Mr. Zeitz is no stranger to creating significant public art. Large windows at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center and at the Rodef Shalom Temple in Pittsburgh, Penn., are among his glass creations, along with many large, privately owned pieces. He has also done metal sculptures for public locations including the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial Museum and in Plymouth. A striking Vietnam Memorial once located at the Mansion House Hotel in Vineyard Haven resides in the Zeitz yard while awaiting a new location, since there is no space since the hotel's rebuilding. But this current work has made an especially deep impression.

"It's a major project for me and very meaningful too," Mr. Zeitz says quietly, reflecting that his father died only shortly before he began the work and that the feelings engendered by that loss may have influenced his profoundly spiritual concept.

In mid-summer Mr. Zeitz will disassemble the window, pack each panel separately, then transport them in his own van to Queens. There the panels will be installed in a teak and mahogany grid being constructed for that purpose.

The window will be the focal point of a pavilion-style spiritual center at the Maple Grove Cemetery. The large, non-denominational cemetery serves a richly diverse population, Mr. Zeitz explained. Although it is set in a small neighborhood, it is near the city too. On the ground floor the building will hold burial niches, individual glass-fronted openings for 2,300 urns. A room for gatherings will be located above it. The window will be viewed from both levels as it stretches from floor to ceiling.

Realizing a vision

Linda Mayo Perez, the president and CEO of Maple Grove Cemetery, approached Mr. Zeitz last summer while she was visiting the Island. Familiar with his work from earlier visits, she asked if he would be interested in taking on the project. Negotiations were harmonious, Mr. Zeitz says, calling Ms. Perez "a real visionary." By September he had the commission and began casting glass while he continued the studio project with the consultation of architect George Crawford and the assistance of Scott Young, who pitched in to get it finished.

Since then the commission has been the center of Mr. Zeitz's creative life, and although it is finally complete, the work still fills his awareness as he contemplates minor changes and adjustments, muses continually about whether the images fully express his original vision, and simply gazing at it, marveling at the play of light on the iridescent color.

"It's a pretty good-sized piece of art to leave the Island," says a smiling Mr. Zeitz with a jaunty wave at the window, justifiably pleased with the work that has consumed him for all these months.

Mr. Zeitz was asked to create the design himself with no specifications given except for size and a description of the building and its setting. He started with a small, quite abstract charcoal drawing whose details became more defined as he did larger versions. At last he completed a half-scale rendering for presentation to the cemetery's board of trustees. Once it was approved, the work began in earnest. Ms. Perez visited while the work was underway, discussing minor adjustments with the artist.

Mr. Zeitz begins with a layer of clear base glass, and using techniques he developed himself, first draws directly onto it with metal oxide, outlining shapes in black lines, adding a color wash which once covered with layers of fused glass gives an effervescent sparkle. The top may be two or three layers deep as he adds more glass to achieve his desired color. Whether small flat sheets, coarse crushed glass, or even fine glass powder, the multiple layers lend a depth and cause the colors to shift and shimmer when light hits. Once the materials are arranged on the panel, Mr. Zeitz lifts it into his large custom-built kiln with stainless steel holders that he created himself. The finished glass ranges from one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch thick.

At various stages in the process, as he added color and definition, Mr. Zeitz became concerned about losing his original concept; it seemed to him no longer as abstract and ethereal as he had first imagined.

But in time he came to believe that the art would be better received and more soothing to a wide range of viewers if it was not too abstract or ambiguous. The sense of form blending into form gives the composition a continuity that is soothing and harmonious - just the feeling one would want at a cemetery gathering place.

Barney Zeitz open studio, 595 State Rd., Vineyard Haven. Friday, May 25, 5 to 7 pm, Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27, 4 to 7 pm. For information, call 508-693-9421.