Sandy, looming rent put stained-glass artist on the edge
BY HEATHER DUBIN | Patti Kelly’s earliest recollections of stained glass are not filled with beauty and streaming light. She is originally from Midwood, Brooklyn, where she attended Catholic school at St. Brendan’s Church.
“I hated stained glass from being stuck in church — getting yelled at by the priest, we were all such sinners,” Kelly said with a laugh. “I wanted to be outside, and stared at the window.”
Years later, Kelly put her childhood associations aside, and took a class in stained glass, at her younger sister’s suggestion. She was hooked, which has resulted in a 35-year career as a designer, restorer and instructor of stained glass. Twenty-five years ago, she opened her own business, Kelly Glass Studio & Gallery, currently located on E. Eighth St. near Avenue C. “
“If you don’t take a risk, you never know,” she said.
Kelly completed a degree in fine arts and sculpture at Brooklyn College, and worked at several different studios. When she landed her first job in glass at Rambusch, a decorating company, she was in for a surprise. Her very first assignment was at her former alma mater, St. Brendan’s Church.
“I don’t know how that happened,” she said, “but there’s an irony in life.”
Kelly was in her early 20s at Rambusch, and absorbed as much as she could from the diverse range of craftspersons who worked in glass, lighting, paint and design.
“It was an old-school way of doing things,” she said. “I was a sponge. ‘Show me how to do this’ — I was annoying.”
Kelly was also one of the few women there.
“Back then, in the ’80s, they didn’t like the idea of women in crafts at all,” she recalled. “The ones that stuck it out really got good, just out of sheer stubbornness.”
Kelly has lasted, and after a studio job in Brooklyn for four years, she moved her work to the East Village, where she branched out on her own. She also lived in the neighborhood for nine years before heading to Brooklyn for eight, until her building was recently sold.
Kelly had a studio on St. Mark’s Place in the early ’90s — “before Kmart and McDonald’s,” she noted — and then on Essex St. near Rivington St., followed by 12 years on Avenue C by E. Eighth St.
Seven years ago, she moved her studio around the corner to a spot on E. Eighth St. The space gets plenty of light. There are two large worktables and a wall of tools. Her craftsmanship — door panels, a double-hung window, light boxes and lamps — fills out the front windows and the space.
Luckily for Kelly, none of her work was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. The surge flooded Avenue C, but did not make it down E. Eighth St.
She did lose family antiques in a storage unit, and also her car, which she relied on to get to job sites. While she replaced her car, without studio phone service for four months following the storm, there was a steep decline in her business.
“A lot of it has been trying to catch up from those four months,” she said, “and this past winter, which was extremely harsh. Who wants you to take out windows when it’s 14 degrees?”
Kelly has one more year left on her lease, and faces a stiff rent increase. Like many other businesses and artists in the East Village, she now fears being displaced from the neighborhood. So she’s putting out an appeal. If people are thinking of a restoration or commission, or might be interested in buying any of her works for sale, now is the time.
Over the years, she has adapted to the market for stained glass. She likes to do restoration work, which prevents someone from having to throw out a window.
“It’s nice to take something old and rebuild it,” she said. “Then it’s as fresh as a daisy, and will last another 100 years.”
Kelly also favors new pieces, allowing her to use her imagination.
She creates atypical copper lamps with fish and trees, and added “lamp triage” to her workload a few years ago.
“Lots of lamps came in from China and Korea and put people out of the business here making them,” she said. “For me, it got better, and I got really good at fixing the lamps, because they weren’t very well made.”
Also an activist, she was involved with the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church. The group played a pivotal role in saving the historic house of worship, built in 1848, on Avenue B and E. Eighth St., from demolition.
“Buildings have such a vast history, especially in this neighborhood,” she said. “They survive changes in the neighborhood, and out of respect, you have to do what you can to save them.”
Kelly noted that St. Brigid’s newly restored windows are well preserved. However, another studio worked on them. The Irish “famine church”’s original windows were less-expensive painted glass. The current windows were salvaged from an Uptown church.
Kelly previously restored church windows, but has not had an offer since she joined the committee nine years ago — it’s payback, she thinks.
“I will never get another church job, I’m going to lose a lot of money,” she said she told fellow committee members. “They thought I was lying.”
Kelly has built her clientele mostly by word of mouth. Years ago, she was offered a stained-glass Star of David in need of repair that had hung over the altar in a former synagogue on E. Seventh St. near Avenue C. She did not have room for it. A few years later, it came up again.
“Someone told me, ‘I rescued this from the synagogue [before the building was renovated], and you’re the only one I know who can fix it,’ ” Kelly related.
This time, she agreed. To restore it, she used glass from a 110-year-old piece from another synagogue that was shutting down.
“I like the history behind it,” she said. “I knew three people who wrote and spoke Hebrew. I did the calligraphy for it, got the wording correct. They were rather impressed for a Catholic girl that I got all the Hebrew right. I would love to sell that,” she added.
Meanwhile, she will continue to design pieces like the beautiful door with ’70s-style swirled glass, inspired by a vine near St. Mark’s Place, restore Tiffany pieces and teach glasswork.
“It’s such an old art form, and glass is so versatile to work with,” she said. “If you can draw it, you can make it.”
Kelly, who taught at Parsons for three years, will begin her summer session this month in her studio.
Visit kellyglassstudio.net to view her work and for class schedules.