Artist delights in puzzle of piecing together stained-glass
ELLSWORTH — To stand in the Duff/Shepard household is to be surrounded by art. Both trained as painters, Tamara Duff and David Shepard ventured into other careers — she as an estate gardener and he as a stonemason — but both kept creating, filling their house with their own work and the work of others. Shepard’s dramatic, larger-than-life paintings grace the walls; Duff’s bright, whimsical stained-glass pieces adorn the stall in the master bath, frame a hallway mirror and spring from a piece of driftwood.
“It was years ago,” said Duff of her entry into the stained-glass world. “My kids were little, and I just took a night course.”
Now retired from gardening, Duff spends her free time doing mostly commissioned work in her small studio in the couple’s house off the Winkumpaugh Road. They built the house themselves, along with a studio for Shepard and a maple sugar shack (Shepard built the shack and did the masonry work; Duff created the stained-glass windows).
“I do the glass as much as I want to,” said Duff. “I love to do it.”
Colored glass has been produced since ancient times. Both ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians crafted small, colorful glass objects; larger stained-glass windows decorated mosques, palaces and churches throughout the Islamic world and Medieval Europe. In the Middle Ages, stained-glass windows were often used to illustrate Biblical narratives to a populace that was largely illiterate.
The glass used in stained-glass windows is much harder than typical window glass, Duff explained as she scored a lavender colored piece that would eventually become the petal of a lupine.
Although the longtime Ellsworth resident makes the occasional piece to sell at the Maine Crafts Association Gallery, working on commission means pieces must be measured to fit precisely in a space — the cabin of a boat, or a master bath, or the shade of a lamp. She often incorporates found objects (driftwood is a favorite) into her designs, and takes inspiration from the world around her, depicting seabirds scurrying across a beach, a heron wading, maple sugar buckets collecting sap.
“It’s like making a puzzle,” said Duff as she ground down the edges of the lupine petal using a Glastar All Star Grinder.
Once the edges have been smoothed, Duff cleans the piece and wraps it in a thin, flat piece of copper foil, bending it around the glass.
“You just wrap it equally on both sides,” she explained.
“If you’re not using copper foil you use a lead cane on glass too,” said Duff, searching for a piece as an example. “The glass would just sit in the cane.”
After it is wrapped in foil, a piece is burnished and trimmed, the foil pushed down so it sticks firmly. The tidier the foil, the neater the finished product will be. Copper-edged pieces are then assembled like a puzzle and fluxed, or melted, so they stick together.
“You take these pieces and you pin them together, then you flux it, then you take the soldering iron and you run it along,” said Duff, demonstrating on the lupine petal.
Solder (Duff uses a solder that is a mix of tin and lead, although companies are trying to move away from lead in solder, she said) comes in a roll resembling jewelry wire but has a lower melting point (a 60/40 tin/lead alloy melts at roughly 374 degrees F) than other metals. The 60/40 solder Duff uses has a “working range” of 13 degrees, meaning it melts at 374 degrees F and becomes solid again at 361 degrees F, giving a bit of time to form narrow, consistent seams.
Duff prefers the darker antique look, so she treats her soldered seams to make them appear darker. “I don’t leave it the shiny silver of the solder,” she said.
The artist’s pieces adorn homes, boats and offices around the country, though they are often difficult to ship and must be hand-delivered. Once, dismayed that a window was broken in transit, she stopped on a cross-country vacation and repaired it.
“I basically took my portable studio,” said Duff.
“It kept her up all night!” Shepherd chimed in.
“He was in a panic,” she said, smiling.