Jay King, owner of Arkansas Glassworks in Little Rock, has been building and repairing stained glass windows for 43 years, or more than two-thirds of his life.
“I graduated from high school in June of 1972 and started working for my uncle the day after the 4th of July,” Mr. King said.
It was an inauspicious beginning.
“He said, ‘This is a glass cutter. This is how it cuts glass. This is a pile of broken stained glass windows. Get to work.’”
That daunting start for a teenager who’d grown up in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, and the Jersey Shore grew into a love and knowledge of the art that’s left King’s mark on churches in Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
In 1972 the place was Chicago, and his uncle, John Yaskot, owned Hawk and Handsaw, which specialized in gleaning stained glass and other antique architectural elements from the city’s old Victorian buildings just before the wrecking ball hit.
“Hawk and Handsaw is from Shakespeare when Hamlet says, ‘When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw,” a proverb that means I know one thing from another. As for stained glass repair work my uncle John really didn’t know a hawk from a handsaw. But my older brother, Bill, worked there too, and we all kind of learned together. My uncle did know the value of stained glass. Chicago had a lot of it. The city was built up after the great fire in 1871.”
Jay said the massive rebuilding came at a time when Victorian architecture was popular. Stained glass was in vogue too, and many European-trained stained glass artists opened studios in Chicago. Starting in the 1950s, many of the Victorian homes and arts-and-crafts bungalows with this beautiful old stained glass were being razed. Later this dovetailed nicely with a demand for stained glass in San Francisco.
“The 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco came at the end of the Victorian Age,” he said. Victorian architecture was still the rage when that city was rebuilt. The two disasters that “book ended” one another provided stained glass from Chicago for renewal projects popular in San Francisco during the 1970s.
“A lot of my uncle’s customers came from San Francisco. I remember one who would pull up in front of the shop with a semi truck and buy just about everything in the shop. It would all go straight to San Francisco. My uncle got into it when buildings were wrecked in the ‘50s. He’d slip them $20 to let him take out the glass before they wrecked it. First he just took the glass, but after a few years he saved mantles, moldings, and other architectural elements, anything they could get before the wrecking ball hit. Later he was edged out by antique dealers who made deals with property owners long before the wrecking crews got on the scene.”
After a year and a half in Chicago, Jay moved to Austin, Texas, where for his first eight years, he worked at Renaissance Glass.
“When I moved to Austin, there were only two people besides myself working at Renaissance. They didn’t know much about repairing stained glass, and I didn’t know about building stained glass."
During his eight years there, Jay repaired stained glass, learned how to build windows, and watched the staff grow to 21 employees. Renaissance was one of the larger studios, but stained glass was a booming business in Austin, and there was plenty of work for the many glass studios that mushroomed in the city.
After eight years building and repairing stained glass windows, Jay felt like he needed a “break,” and he got it in more ways than one.
“The first thing I did was take a break from stained glass. I started doing store front glass. I was building it and also breaking out the old windows. I started experimenting with the way glass breaks.”
That was the beginning of a number of art glass pieces and his entry into Austin galleries where he showed his work and helped hang the work of other glass artists. After his obsession with glass cracks, he began photographing the cracks the sidewalks around the city. Looking at one absolutely gorgeous work of art in his Little Rock studio, one would never guess that it’s based on the way concrete cracks and erodes in an Austin sidewalk.
While all this was great fun, he had to make a living, so Jay returned to stained glass, but not to one studio. “I was a hired gun. Wherever the big stained glass jobs were, I went there, and I did a little stained glass on my own. It was pretty much a gypsy life. But I did work on one church for all of 1987. That was a revelation. It was real satisfying, to build all the windows in a church. I really liked that.
“That was the time of the energy crunch in Texas. Austin was totally overbuilt. Few million dollar homes were being built. By 1988, there was no work.”
After five months with nary a job in sight, he decided it was time to move.
“I came to Little Rock with my tail between my legs."
During those first years in Little Rock, Jay built stained glass windows at home in his house in North Little Rock, did glazing work, ran a metal shop building storefronts for American Wholesale Glass, and later drove a glass truck for the North Little Rock company when it closed the metal shop.
Jay started Arkansas Glassworks in 1993. Why? “I wanted to get back into stained glass full time, make more money, be my own boss, and not have to wake up at 4 in the morning to be at work at 5.
The first couple of years were pretty lean, but it all worked out for the best. Now his work may be seen in homes in Pleasant Valley, the Heights, the Quapaw Quarter and other neighborhoods all over Little Rock.
His windows for churches are typically traditional in nature, including symmetrical designs, arches, and centered medallions. But one of his favorite Arkansas churches is Faith Baptist in McCrory, which has a more contemporary design with various hues of blue, purple and green blending into one another.
Another is Salem Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, which one congregant said is a favorite local church for weddings because the rose hues from the windows make the brides look so beautiful. Many of the churches order pre-made painted medallions, but Jay designed 12 original medallions for that Pine Bluff church. He has also designed and built stained glass windows for churches in Stuttgart, Carlisle, Little Rock, Greenbrier, Jacksonville, Bald Knob, North Little Rock, Arkadelphia, Sparkman, and McGhee, and has done restoration work on existing stained glass windows all over the state.
“The main thing I like to do is to provide affordable windows to churches who often believe they really can’t afford stained glass. I like to work with small churches in small towns. I prefer the smaller congregations.
“It’s always fun toward the end of the job when I’m installing the windows. It’s an event. People in the congregation often come by. They ooh and ah. Sometimes I go to dedication ceremonies. When people come up to me and say thank you, it makes me feel good. You work so long in a church, there’s a real sense of accomplishment when it’s done.
“I worked on a mosaic that took almost an entire year. It’s a lot more work than stained glass. It represents a year of my life, and I wanted it to look good. A lot of times the windows I do are memorial windows. You are building them not just for the congregation, but for the remembrance of family members. When you get a positive response, it goes a long way. I did a window for a church in Greenbrier, and a lady who was a member of the congregation said she’ll look at that window and it is her focal point when she comes to church services and she feels a sense of awe. It made me feel good to know my work is affecting people’s worship in a special way.
“In the smaller churches, people tend to know one another well, and it seems like they pull together to get things done. Whether it’s agreeing on the design and colors for windows or larger issues. In 2005 I was in Dumas working on windows at First Baptist, and all the churches came together to provide shelter for people trying to get away from Katrina. All the motels were full, but one member of the congregation told me to come down anyway. He invited me into his home for the night and fed me a great breakfast."
Most of the glass Jay uses for his churches is made in the United States from three companies that sell quality glass and provide hundreds of different colors and textures from which to choose.
Opalescent glass, which is used a great deal in church work, has a base of white, he said, and can have different colors within the base. Cathedral glass has a base of clear, so that even if a glass is dark, a dark blue, for example, it’s color is pure and jewel-like. Wispy glasses are sort of half opalescent and half cathedral.
“You can mix the different types of glass for great effect in windows. Often churches are trying to attain an inward direction. You don’t want your eyes to wander outside the church windows, and consequently, we use a lot of opalescents.”
Most of his residential work utilizes clear bevels. “Most studios use only one or two bevel manufacturers, but I wanted to get as much variety in my bevels as possible, so they come from many sources. When I first went into business, I assembled a great many bevels from different manufacturers. With residential glass, I build windows around bevel clusters, a group of bevels that comprise a central design."
Customers browse the bevel books and select the ones they want, often helping to design their own windows, sidelights, or front doors.
Jay also sells glass for kitchen cabinets. “German simulated hand-blown glass gives a unique touch to china cabinets or kitchen cabinets. It has a beautiful reflection to it.”
His stained glass windows start at $100 a square foot for very simple designs. The average price runs $110 to $130 a square foot. Beveled windows typically run about $10 more per square foot.
Jay has had art shown in juried exhibitions in Arkansas, and has taught stained glass in American quilt patterns at the Ozark Folk School. His shop is located at 900 S. Rodney Parham. Call him at 993-0012 for more information or visit arkansasglassworks.com.