Interview with Alyson Lapan '93
What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Click to view some of Alyson's work
Three words? That’s a toughie for anyone. With the help of my husband Jim, I will say: project-driven homebody. He wants me to add that I have a healthy appetite for chaos, but I will inform him about the word limit.
When were you introduced to the art of stained glass making? How did you choose that as a career?
I was first introduced to stained glass in a hobby shop run by a friend’s mother in my hometown in the summer of 1990.
Gramma still has the results of that class in her kitchen window. In my 1991-92 school year, I took advantage of the U of R’s study-abroad program to spend a year in northern England at the University of Lancaster, and loved checking out all the ancient glass and feeling all smart in my observations of it. That’s usually a mistake, because I tend to notice my lack of smart in retrospect. Oh well to that.
Anyway, feeling all knowledgeable and chummy, I went to only one actual stained glass fabrication company in England. The proprietor was cranky and asked me not to waste his time. Challenge accepted: I will learn how to make stained glass without your vote of confidence, Crankypants! Sometimes motivation can be ephemeral and mysterious, but not this time.
During my 1992 interim at U of R, I did a large stained glass independent project on two desks in my dorm room. I chose to show this panel during my Senior Art Show (see panel of nude facing away).
Incidentally, I learned stained glass repair while working on that panel, too.
After graduation I moved to Minnesota, near a bunch of friends I had made from Johnston College. My career in stained glass resulted from my having the guts to apply for a job at Gaytee Stained Glass, in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, and from my willingness to accept a very low wage. It all started, and continued, as simply as that. I have worked at stained glass fabrication shops in Minneapolis, San Diego and Seattle, because it’s enjoyable and satisfying, and it’s fun to know stuff and be seen as skilled and knowledgeable. And just so you know, my wages did go up!
What kinds of art interested you while you attended the UR?
I tried out ceramics, watercolors, oil painting, graphic design, book-making, print-making, art history, and how to teach art to children. My favorite art movements are art nouveau and pre-Raphaelite—look at the detail, and the stories told!
I enjoyed staring at the stained glass panels in the Chapel while I was rehearsing for the Feast of Lights. Rumor had it that there had originally been a Dalmatian dog somewhere in the panel, but that the school requested it be removed. I especially enjoyed trying to figure out where the Dalmatian must have been. At the time I imagined that it had been painted over, and if I examined the panels carefully I might be able to make out its outline or other traces. As it turns out, if the story is true, then the dog would have been physically removed and replaced. It was fun to look for it, anyway.
Do you recall a professor, friend or counselor who influenced you while attending the UR? How did they inspire or support you?
John Brownfield and Penny McElroy were particularly helpful advisors, as was the art department secretary (whose name I don’t remember). John and Penny supported my ideas and plans, and gave me little pushes when I lacked initiative. They were wry and quirky and impatient, as they probably needed to be. As for the secretary, she was the first non-family-member to purchase one of my stained glass pieces! I was both inspired and intimidated by my fellow students, and it was an honor to watch them blossom.
What do you enjoy most about the art of stained glass? How do you feel when you finish a big project?
I take pleasure in working with my hands. Stained glass is more of a craft than an art—I design my own pieces only once in a great while—and I find great satisfaction in maintaining a high level of craftsmanship. It can be very much like solving a puzzle, and that helps keep it interesting. (see the bright blue spiral as an example of a serious glass trap.)
As for how I feel when I finish a big project: that depends. In a shop I might work on immense projects, and the process is certainly satisfying, but when I’m done with a panel it goes on to the next step in the process (puttying) and I immediately start on the next panel or project. I like to know that I was trusted to do well, but I let go right away. However, my personal projects, although usually small, can be amazing to me: “did I really do that?” (four-of-cups tarot panel, & group project painted face panel)
Any secrets or unknown facts about stained glass that you can share?
People get confused about the term “stained glass,” which originally only meant glass that had been painted with vitreous paints or silver stain and fired somewhere around 1,300 degrees. (See the horse panel for an example of that.) Nowadays the term is used more generally to refer to panels built out of colored cathedral (clear/transparent) or opalescent (opaque) glass that has been cut up and pieced together using lead came. The iris-and-magnolia panel is a good example of that. “Stained glass” is an umbrella term that covers foiled, leaded, painted, and even fused glass.
What was your favorite, or most memorable, project?
My favorite professional project could be the Tiffany style iris-and-magnolia panel that was built for a couple in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. The reason is that it’s one of the few I located after installation. I occasionally visit it with friends or family in order to show off.
Other memorable panels include an astrology-themed panel built for Prince’s rehearsal room door in Minnesota and a panel of two geishas whose owner returned it because they were not aware that red cathedral glass looks black with no light behind it, and at night their children thought the geishas were vampires.