Artist Carolyn Insler could not have picked a better place for her studio, Visions Stained Glass. Located in a spacious second story loft in the repurposed Office Co-ordinators building on Main Street, both abstract and more tangible stained glass works hang by thin wires from a high ceiling, creating a colorful, glittering gallery suspended in mid-air.
An art deco lady gazes at a flock of birds; a tree spreads its verdant branches across a translucent sky; and seemingly random shards of amber glass form a stunning canvas of jagged geometries.
On clear days, the sun hits the glass in the studio early in the morning, giving the space a slightly magical quality. “The lighting in here is wonderful,” she says.
Closer to eye level, Insler has filled windows and shelves with smaller pieces: dogs, hummingbirds, and blossoms share these spaces with intricately designed Tiffany-style lamp shades, more art deco ladies, and a mermaid that looks like she’s swimming through shades of blue. Like all good art, the pieces engage the eye and require a little imagination.
“I enjoy doing the abstract stuff, but I also like doing the pieces that tell a story,” she says, pointing to a work of a woman wearing a beautiful dress and holding a glass of wine.
Insler then walks over to a rooster hung against one wall. Unlike the other pieces in the room, it’s framed by polished wood. She hits a switch, and an LED lamp turns on behind the strutting fowl, illuminating its feathers with soft light. “You don’t have to hang stained glass in a window,” she says. “Using a light box opens up all kinds of possibilities.” (Local artist Jim Roche built the light box.)
Next, Insler sits down before a custom window she’s making for a couple in New Jersey that’s repairing the damage Hurricane Sandy did to their home. The image of rays of energy passing through a woman and into a man will be placed in their bathroom. She created the piece from scratch, not a pattern. “I work with a blank canvas,” she says. “I’ll sit here staring at nothing until I figure out what I want to do.”
Born and raised in Michigan, Insler grew up in a family of artists, but never took up painting because she felt she couldn’t compete. She worked as a surgical tech in a hospital and then earned a college degree in marketing before she discovered the craft that would ignite the creative spark in her.
“There was a guy who had a stained glass retail shop in Ann Arbor. He did custom pieces and taught classes,” she says. “We started dating, and I decided I wanted to try it. I was instantly hooked.”
Insler liked that she could create the framing first and then apply the shapes to the glass. And she appreciated the restrictions that are inherent to stained glass work, such as being able to make only certain cuts. She also liked that she could make functional pieces, such as lamp shades.
Circumstances eventually led Insler to Las Vegas, where she opened a retail shop. During her five years there, she made custom pieces, sold her own work, and taught her craft to others. When the economy slumped, so did her business. After Insler moved
to Chattanooga, she worked out of a home studio and exhibited her works through In-Town Gallery on Frazier Avenue.
“That was good for me,” she says. “You have to produce an entirely new body of work every six months, which forced me to be productive.”
Insler likes playing shop, though, so in August, she opened her current studio. There, she sells glass by the pound, does custom work, makes her own pieces to display and sell, repairs broken pieces, and teaches others how to do what she does. She’s open from 9:30-5:30 Tuesday through Saturday, and welcomes walk-ins.
“Come in, and I’ll drop what I’m doing and spend an hour with you,” she says. “We’ll grab a pile of old window glass and start cutting.”
One customer came in over the holidays with a drawing he’d made of a Christmas tree. He left two hours later with something else he’d created. But Insler doesn’t require a student to have a game plan. “I don’t carry pattern books, so I push my students to just make something as they learn the process,” she says. “They’re so used to saying they can’t draw, they’ve never tried it. Sometimes, they come up with something really creative.”
And like Insler, they often become hooked once they try it.
Visions Stained Glass is located at 400 E. Main St. To make an appointment, call (423) 255-3341. For more information, visit www.VisionsGallery.com.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.