Robotham - Glass Masters




Father and son artisans have a passion for creating works that can light up your life

By Tom Robotham

I’ve always admired people who practice traditional crafts. Indeed, through future columns or feature stories, I hope to introduce you to a variety of artisans in Hampton Roads. I’m especially interested in the letter-press operation at Old Dominion University. I’d also like to spend time with luthiers, furniture makers, boat builders, stone carvers and people who bind books by hand.

Such artisans are important, it seems to me, not only to the individuals who buy their wares, but to society as a whole. After all, we live in a culture cluttered with cheap, disposable stuff. Traditional artisans are guardians of the very idea of quality and the aesthetics of everyday life. (When I use the term artisan, I’m referring to artists whose work is also functional.) They also remind us that good things take time. In this age of instant gratification—of big-box stores and drive-thrus and overnight shipping—that’s a lesson we could all stand to relearn.

I started thinking about this more deeply after meeting Jerry Brannin, owner of American Art Glass on Colley Avenue in Norfolk, and his son Alex. Together, the father and son team have produced some of the finest stained-glass windows in the region.

Meeting them was my good fortune for two reasons. A few months ago, two dear friends of mine got married. I knew I wanted to give them something special, but I had no idea what that might be. Fortunately, another friend, who’s also close with the couple, had what you might call the raw materials for a perfect gift: an old pub window emblazoned with the word “Stout” in gold lettering. Only problem was that the window was broken into two pieces and had a large crack in the center. My friend suggested that we have it restored and add the letters “A&M” for Adam and Maggie, the couple’s first names, above the word “Stout.”

“I know just the place that can do it,” my friend said. “American Art Glass, up on Colley Avenue.”

That turned out to be good call. The finished product was even more beautiful than what we’d envisioned, and our newly married friends were blown away. “This is something we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives,” Maggie remarked when we unveiled it.

For Jerry and Alex, however, it was a fairly routine restoration. They take great pride in every job, large or small—the mark of true craftsmen—but over the years they’ve produced countless restorations, which account for about 60 percent of the business, not to mention original creations that were far more challenging.

Given their experience, it’s not surprising that they’re up to every task. Jerry, now 66, started the business 42 years ago out of his apartment, then subsequently rented space in an art gallery in downtown Norfolk before opening his own shop in Ghent, near the old Elliott’s restaurant. He stayed there for 15 years before moving up the road to 4314 Colley, near O’Sullivan’s restaurant.

Early on, from 1969 to 1973, Jerry studied art at Old Dominion University under Ken Daley and A.B. Jackson, both of whom he counts as essential influences in his life. Indeed, Jackson played such an important role in his life that Jerry named his son after him. As for Daley, Jerry says, “he taught me more about drawing than anyone in my life.” While at ODU, he also learned a lot about color. “Everybody thinks they know about color,” he says. “I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t know a damn thing.”

Jackson also became his first customer. “I sold my first piece to him for his bathroom,” Jerry recalls.

He’s come a long way since then. His stained glass windows now adorn the chapels of seven aircraft carriers, including the USS Nimitz, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. He’s also done windows for mess halls and officers’ quarters on more than two dozen other Naval vessels.

The Brannins’ work is also prevalent in many area churches and private homes. I say Brannins, plural, because these days 28-year-old Alex is an integral part of the business and a master artist and craftsman in his own right. While I was there, he was carefully but efficiently—and with sure-handed confidence—restoring a century-old window from the historic Bank Street Baptist Church.

Meanwhile, as Jerry and I sat chatting nearby, a woman dropped in and asked Jerry if he sold art supplies. In particular, she was looking for a piece of lead framing material for a small piece of stained glass that she had made herself. After admiring the work, he gave her what she needed.
“No charge,” he said.

That simple exchange reinforced an impression I’d already formed. Brannin is not only highly skilled and talented—he’s generous, motivated more by a desire to share his knowledge and passion for his art than he is by a desire to make money.

Don’t get me wrong—Brannin’s a businessman as well as an artist, and he’s managed to make a good living doing what he loves. But passion is the operative word. It’s what drives him not only to do the work but to continually improve upon it.

“It’s hell when you sit around and look at your older work for a while and see all the stuff you wish you’d done differently, with the colors or what have you,” he told me. “But the good news is that every piece of art gives me an idea for how to make a better piece.”

He feels the same way about restorations. “It’s like saving a life,” he said.

As our conversation unfolded, I realized that this comment wasn’t mere hyperbole. One of the things that drew me to this story, in addition to my aforementioned admiration of traditional craftsmen, is a love of stained glass in particular. Though I’ve gone through phases in my spiritual life, from devout worship to borderline agnosticism, my own love of churches and cathedrals has never waned since early childhood. Much of that has to do with the transcendent beauty of stained glass windows, which, to my mind, adds immeasurably to the spiritual experience.

I couldn’t help wondering whether Jerry, whom someone once said looks like a cross between George Carlin and Jerry Garcia, was religious himself, or simply saw his commissions as jobs.

When I asked him whether he regards himself as a religious person, he replied laconically, and to the point.

“Yeah man. This is a lot more than a job to me.”

In retrospect, though, I realized I didn’t really need to ask him that question. The answer is evident in his work—in the light that both literally and spiritually shines through his work.

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