Most days over the past 20 years or so, Jim Voss could be found creating stained glass pieces in the shop tucked behind his garage in Iowa City. As he draws designs, cuts, polishes, and solders glass pieces, Voss will listen to music — “Bob Dylan’s my favorite” — or talk radio, depending on his mood.
He’ll stand up to eight hours a day at massive counter-height worktables in the shop he and his brother built. Dozens of custom cubbies hold pieces of art glass in every color. Tools of the trade, such as glass cutters, pliers, grinders, a soldering iron and a good-quality diamond saw, sit on counters along the walls.
Along the windows and walls are stained glass panels Voss created for himself — including one of Dylan — and others, projects that haven’t been picked up yet. It’s a busy, but organized, space with lots of color.
HOBBY TO SECOND CAREER
Always an art lover, Voss, now 79, found his artistic medium about 50 years ago.
Ed Voss, his dad’s cousin, owned a stained glass company in the Quad Cities. Jim Voss began learning the craft as a young adult, “training myself and trial and error,” he said.
Stained glass was a hobby for many years, but became his second career after he retired from being a computer network administrator at Oral-B Labs in Iowa City.
ORIGINAL ART & REPAIRS
Voss does repair work, often on church windows, and also creates original pieces on commission. Sometimes he has partnered with a woodworker on projects, such as an oversized, lighted Scrabble board with dozens of small glass letters.
The most time-intensive project he’s undertaken — creating 63 original panels for the Rochester Methodist Church in Cedar County — took him a year and a half. Each panel depicts a Biblical scene and incorporates green glass saved by parishioners from the original windows that had been replaced decades earlier. He considered it a labor of love, having grown up just a few miles down the road from the church.
Voss points to a recent sentimental piece — a hanging stained glass panel of a cardinal. After his beloved cousin died last year, her son asked Voss to create a piece that incorporated his mother’s favorite bird, a cardinal.
Over the years, Voss has invoiced 300-plus projects, including about 500 stained glass windows.
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Voss estimates a hobbyist could get started for a few hundred dollars, to buy tools and a supply of glass.
At his level of skill, Voss can charge $200 per square foot. The money can be good, but the work isn’t steady. Anything he earns goes toward travel.
STAINED GLASS IN EVERY ROOM
Some of Voss’ creations find their way into his own home.
An antique hutch with stained glass doors stands in the kitchen. Voss and his late wife, Rosemary, who died in 1998, paid $5 for the old wooden hutch. Rosemary stripped the paint, and he made the glass panels.
Step out the side door of his shop onto the patio and duck into a covered gazebo. You’ll find a colorful glass version of a Punch cigar label with a whimsical jester slouched in a comfy chair, feet up on an ottoman. The smoking jester keeps Voss company as he relaxes with rye and cigars every Saturday.
A step or two up from the patio is a sunroom sparkling with so many Voss pieces that it seems to be a mini stained glass museum. The panels hanging from floor-to-ceiling were designed and created by Voss between 2000 and 2012.
“I still want to make some more,” he said.
Many pieces were inspired by his favorite architect and designer, Frank Lloyd Wright. Known primarily for Prairie-style homes and buildings, Wright included leaded glass in many of his designs. Voss sometimes modifies Wright-inspired windows with punches of rich, deep colors.
Although Wright’s style is evident in many of the panels Voss does for himself, the most popular piece he’s pinned on Pinterest is his own design, a series of circles in the bold colors he loves.
In the center of the back panel of windows is a panel in a soft green. Voss pulled a prism from an old window someone gave him. He took the prism’s design, enlarged it, created intricate panels of green glass edged in black, then put the original prism in its center. The piece is a wedding gift for Voss’ fiancé, Susan Jones; the two plan to marry this year.
“Susan loves that color green,” he said.
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Down the hall, there’s a small bathroom with a narrow stained glass window edged in aqua and purple depicting a tree from which gray birds pick red berries. Voss said the key to maintaining a window’s energy efficiency, while adding the beauty of stained glass, is to create a framed panel the exact size of the existing window.
“You just fit it over (the existing window),” Voss said, adding that gives the homeowner the option of taking the stained glass with them if they move.
There is one type of project Voss won’t tackle himself: stained glass lampshades. Gravity and heat from the light bulb work together to weaken leaded glass over time. He owns lamps with glass shades but vows to never make one.
NEW USES FOR OLD STUDIO
Voss said he’d like to retire from his second career, but is finding that difficult. His Facebook page is still up, but the website is down, and Voss Stained Glass Studio is essentially closed for business. Perhaps.
“I’ve got old customers. It’s kind of hard to quit,” Voss said.
It’s hard on his body to stand the hours required to complete stained glass projects, so Voss is transitioning to being a painter. However, with so few practicing the glass craft, he sometimes finds it difficult to say no. A few other projects are on his to-do list including a mandala panel for daughter Julie Bergeon.
He tried to get Julie or his grandkids interested in the craft. So far, no one has stepped up. However, he will be sharing his studio with his granddaughter, Cassidy Bergeon.
“The shop’s going to stay open because we’re adding a jewelry maker,” Voss said. “And I’m going to continue to do stained glass for family or whoever talks me into something.”