Driving up the steep driveway to the house where Barney Zeitz lives and makes art feels like entering a world apart. The path leading to his studio took me through a garden where his sculptures are displayed, past leaded and stained glass windows set into the doors and window openings of his shingled house, finally to an open door, and the sound of a grinder carefully applied to task by the masked-and-leather-aproned artist himself.
Art is everywhere. Finished, unfinished, fused glass, leaded or copper-soldered compositions, sculptures and sheets of metal destined to become sculptures, studies for projects, experiments, drawings, ideas and notes on bits of paper, books, tools, rolls and pads of drawing paper, coils of solder, lengths of wood and sheets of plywood, trays of colored glass ground into a fine dust, sheets of glass either clear or colored or swirled. If it sounds like a stimulating environment, it is. It’s cluttered and organized at the same time, a peek into an artist’s process. Being inside, one is also treated to the effects of outdoor light shining through the glass compositions, making them glow as they are intended to, the light an essential component of an art form intended to be seen with light coming through it.
Since Zeitz was working and unable to hear me arrive, I had some time to look around his studio by myself, mostly to examine a landscape that covered a large section of the windows across the front of his studio, and the smaller panel, depicting trumpet vines, that hung over the remaining space. Both were fused glass compositions, painterly, gestural, brilliantly colored. Light coming through the glass enhanced the whole, giving them a depth and dimension apart from what was on the pictorial surface of the work.
Then came the tour. The house where Zeitz lives with his wife, creative drama teacher Phyllis Vecchia, is a paean to the artist’s visual life. Windows are filled with stained or fused glass pieces. Walls are covered with art — Zeitz’s drawings, and work by the artist’s friends of a lifetime. It is beyond wonderful.
We sat down finally and started to talk. Past projects. Current and future projects. It all came rolling out.
What is engaging Zeitz’s attention at the moment is designing and fabricating models for a series of panels that will be suspended from the ceiling between two rooms of the library in the Holocaust and Genocide Center Library at Bristol Community College in Fall River. His aim is to “create a sacred space surrounding where people sit.”
The project began with a collection of buttons. One-and-a-half million buttons, one to represent the life of each child murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust. A mundane object, a button. The buttons were collected around the world as news of the project spread. Then they were sorted by color and size. Zeitz has been experimenting with suspending swirls of buttons in transparent layers of epoxy resin. His first trial has been successfully completed. I can imagine it on the much larger scale of the finished installation. The epoxy panels will be set into elongated metal arches. When completed and installed, it will convey a sense of holiness and respect and loss for human life.
I have been impressed by the spiritual and moral components in many of Zeitz’s major projects. One that he recently completed and installed is the six windows he made for Evangelische Pfarramt Flieden, a Protestant church in Flieden, Germany. It had been a Jewish synagogue since 1562 until Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” when Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues, homes, businesses, Torahs, and other religious artifacts, as well as human beings, on the night of Nov. 9, 1938.
The building sat empty until 1951, when it was purchased by the town’s Protestant community. By serendipity, as often happens, a woman with Vineyard connections visited the church to see where her father had had his bar mitzvah in 1899. Speaking with the minister, Holger Biehn, she learned that they were looking for a Jewish artist to make new stained glass windows, commemorating the Jewish history of the building and the town. Marie Ariel met Zeitz and discussed the project with him. She helped raise funds for the project, too, as did many members of Jewish communities on the Island and from across the globe..
The Flieden windows are a masterpiece. Six windows, three along each side of the church leading to the altar, one side in German, one side in Hebrew, quoting Numbers 6:24-26: “May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” Zeitz chose the quote, known as Aaron’s priestly blessing, because it is a common prayer in both Jewish and Christian ritual.
Another recent project, “The Diversity Sculpture,” is a corner piece in Government Center, Fall River. Engraved across the center of the sculpture is an inscription, “To the enduring memory of our ancestors; indigenous peoples, then immigrants, the enslaved and refugees. May we, their descendants, together with newcomers, help build a more just and peaceful community.” It is a combination of faces and figures, our history. Names of contributors, large or small, are part of the sculpture. Zeitz has stories of people he met while installing the sculpture, the conversations they had, often resulting in donations as small as a dollar, that made the donors so proud to see their names among the list of contributors.
There are many of Zeitz’s sculptures and glass pieces on the Island. The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center has a large fused and leaded window above the Ark holding the Torahs. Light shines in through stylized representations of the lion of God, the Torah, the 10 Commandments, the dove that flew back to Noah with an olive branch in its beak, the Burning Bush, Noah’s ark, the Tree of Life, all on either side of a central panel depicting an arch leading into the Garden of Eden.
He has also created the Vietnam Era Memorial in Oak Bluffs, and the Nancy Michael Memorial in Edgartown, on the African American Heritage Trail. He has restored windows at St. Andrew’s Church, the Stone Church, and First Baptist Church. There are portraits, landscapes, sculptures, chandeliers, and drawings in many private homes.
I urge everyone to look at his website, bzeitz.com, and the articles and videos online about Barney Zeitz and his projects. He is in his 70s now. His long career as an artist is a story to be savored.