Sunday, February 22, 1998

A Palette of Light

The Age-Old Art of Stained Glass Isn't Just for Churches, 
as a South Jersey Master Illustrates With Panache

By Fred B. Adelson

As a stained glass artist, J. Kenneth Leap brings good stories to light. Using literary, historical and Biblical subjects, he creates windows with bold lines, realistically painted forms and eye-catching colors. Connecting the traditions of the past with the needs of the present, Mr. Leap hopes his viewers will always "see something new, find something that holds their interest."

Just ten years ago, he began his career by making glass screens and windows with images of fall foliage, wildflowers, cyclamens, waterlilies and salamanders. Given his strong appreciation of the outdoors and nature's beauty, it is very appropriate that his studio at Wheaton Village in Cumberland County looks like a summer cottage in the woods. The window by the entrance is what suggests otherwise. Like a shopkeeper's pictorial sign, this stained-glass panel presents a crowned lion, a popular image on signs in 18th-century America, striding forward in an intense green landscape with a cluster of violets while bees swarm. The animal, like a symbolic self-portrait, holds a banner that reads The Painted Window, the name Mr. Leap has always used for his studios. In the lion's other paw is a large badger-hair brush, commonly used for glass-painting. The symbolism of the lion (courage), bee (industriousness and inspiration) and violets (humility) provide conceptual content to what might seem merely a commercial advertisement.

Mr. Leap, who grew up in Runnemede, is firmly rooted in South Jersey, which has a historical connection with glass making. After graduating from Bishop Eustace Preparatory School (which may explain his fondness to use Christian iconography) in Pennsauken, he went to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence to study illustration. In the middle of his sophomore year, he transferred into the glass department. At the school, glass was regarded as a sculptural material rather than a craft.

On a family vacation in southern Germany in 1985, Mr. Leap directly experienced the magnificence of medieval stained glass. In an epiphany, he realized that his strength in drawing and painting could be combined with his study of glass. Thus, he found the direction of his future career.

John La Farge, the turn of the century American artist who also worked in stained glass, poetically defined the medium as "the art of painting in the air with a material carrying colored light." But the idea of a stained glass window as a painted picture goes back to the Middle Ages. Working with the same process practiced by medieval craftsmen, Mr. Leap asserts: "My work is more three-dimensional, not like the Gothic tradition, which is two-dimensional." The technique is similar, but the illusion may be different.

Working from a small watercolor rendering, Mr. Leap makes a full-size charcoal drawing called a cartoon, which is used to determine where the lead lines will be placed. These dark lines are integrated with the composition, both to reinforce the original drawing and to emphasize color changes. With templates, individual pieces are cut from sheets of colored glass. Mr. Leap does not make his own colored glass but uses German and French glass. All the details of the imagery are then painted on the colored glass pieces with opaque pigments made of glass and metal oxide. The pigment can be manipulated with brushes to achieve various effects; this is how the artist demonstrates his mastery of draftsmanship, combining skills as both painter and craftsman. Each piece is heated in a kiln to fuse the glass particles in the paint to the surface of the colored glass. All sections are then ready to be assembled into the grooved lead strips.

"My early work was based on subject matter with which I was already familiar, " Mr. Leap says. In the early 90's, he turned from nature scenes to more narrative images. One of his first commissions in this direction came from the grade school he had once attended: the Grace Downing Elementary School in Runnemede where his studio was then situated. The principle wanted a memorial to a fifth grader and several teachers who had died of cancer. Over the school's main doorway, Mr. Leap created a celebratory three-part window illustrating the first verse of Edward Lear's classic poem "The Owl and the Pussycat." As the cat listens to the owl's song, she is staring directly at the school children walking the main hallway to their classrooms. The illusion of deep space is achieved by the moonlight reflected on the sea. At the same time, Mr. Leap cleverly used beveled glass for the sun and the moon, giving the window real dimension.

Mr. Leap's first major architectural project was the creation of a set of windows and a skylight for the State House Annex, built from 1927 to 1931 to ease overcrowding at the State House in Trenton. The first phase of the commission was to create ten window medallions for three rooms originally used as exhibition galleries by the State Museum. Since these galleries still had several of the original 1929 stained glass windows by George William Sotter, Mr. Leap need to create new designs that would complement the existing ones. With a sparkle in his eye, Mr. Leap said, "I wanted to improve upon them."

His truly spectacular work is the skylight called, "New Jersey: A 360-Degree View." for the lobby in front of what was formerly the State Library's first floor reading room. It is a narrative design of grand concept inspired by a 1607 Dutch pictorial map of the world. A traditional wind rose is in the center, with a fleur-de-lis pointing north. The border of the 10-by-14-foot window is marked with the latitudes and longitudes to locate images in relation to Trenton, identified by the golden dome of the State House. Scenes of historical and cultural significance are realistically and geographically presented around the rectangular design of this flattened panorama. "The skylight is a distillation of listening to my father," whose avocation is New Jersey history, Mr. Leap said. He added: "I can say to him, 'you see, I did pay attention to your stories.'"

Mr. Leap drove around the entire state to visit all the sites illustrated - everything from Lucy, the Margate elephant, to Craftsman Farm, Gustav Stickley's house in Parsippany; from the Battle of Princeton to the Battle of Monmouth, and from Miss America to the Statue of Liberty. He even includes America's first drive-in theater ("It was never represented in stained glass, so I wanted to do it") depicting on the screen "The Perils of Pauline," a black-and-white classic filmed in the state. As a gesture of his artistic license, Mr. Leap places his self-portrait in the waters off the Jersey Shore. Having spent more than 18 months on the commission, he raises his arms in a position of either triumph or surrender.

Mr. Leap admits being very fond of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement; his stylized leaves and foliage are direct references to Morris's style. Morris's circle of 19th-century British artists helped revive an interest in stained glass as a medium of painterly pursuit. At the same time, Mr. Leap also has an artistic kinship with the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Like them, he places strong emphasis on detail, includes objects that carry symbolic messages, and demonstrates an appreciation for both the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. Reproductions of works by Renaissance painters like Botticelli and Piero della Francesca are even tacked on the wall of his Millville studio.

Mr. Leap is working on his largest commission, windows for the altar and side aisles of the Masonic Home Chapel in Burlington. He has just complete the first phase, the altar window based on Isaiah 40:31. Since this chapel is primarily used for memorial services, Mr. Leap chose the passage for its uplifting message of renewal: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint." Eighteen panels make up the image, which depicts life-sized classically dressed figures dramatically, posed in stopped action as they move through a landscape filled with violets, irises and columbine. All the flowers carry religious symbolism; the human movement is echoed by the flight of doves moving toward the distant light source at the upper right. The design has a powerful diagonal perspective that carries the eye there.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of his opening his first studio in Runnemede, Mr. Leap is the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Village. The curator, Gay LeClaire Taylor, describes Mr. Leap as "an exceptional artist, who works in the classical style of stained glass where he paints with pigments on the glass and also uses the color of the glass to create his extraordinary windows." Because his work should be seen firsthand to be truly appreciated, it is most fortunate that his major windows are all in easily accessible public places. Mr. Leap says his artistic credo is based on advice from his college design teacher; "Always reward the viewer for taking the time to look closely."

Arrangements to see Mr. Leap's stained glass windows in the State House Annex in Trenton may be made through Philip A. Hayden, Tour program coordinator, at (609) 663-2709