This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the January 1997 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.

Vivienne Gardner sees the world through rose-coloured glass – and blue, green and yellow glass too, along with a kaleidoscope of hues in between. Bermuda’s premier stained-glass artist is renowned for creating some 35 window masterpieces for churches, corporations and private homes throughout the Island (as well as commissioned projects in Canada and the U.S.). But she still thrills to spy the world through her finished artworks once their complicated and painstaking creation is complete.

Bermuda’s premier stained-glass artist Vivenne Gardner with artworks in her Paget studio. 

“Look at the world through this,” she commands, squinting through an aquamarine glass nugget, the colour of a mirror-calm bay in mid-summer. “What I really like is the transparency and colour-no paints ever do that for vou. And when you put all the colours together, they start to almost pulsate!”

Gardner, 67, is enthusing to a visitor one morning in her cluttered Paget studio, where she’s just finished an intricate wooden model of Bermuda’s Anglican Cathedral- a gift to her son. A kiln dominates most of the studio space, where cats slink in from the sprawling garden beyond, and Gardner’s ‘easel’ of glass hangs engagingly against a window pane. Cedar dust covers the floor and chisels and other tools lie scattered at a work bench.

“I’ve been doing art since I was two,” she says simply. While Gardner, who won a Bermuda Arts Council lifetime achievement award last year, is best known for her stained-glass windows, she also works in wood sculpture, painting, pen and ink and mosaics. Creative genes, after all, run in her family. Her maternal grandfather was a book illustrator, her maternal grandmother a miniaturist on ivory, and her father an architect, like both her husband James, and son John- senior partner at Cooper and Gardner. Daughter-in-law Judy is a textiles artist, while daughter Susan is a graphic artist at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo.

“I really feel one is hardly able to take credit for art. It’s in the genes. You’re either given it, or you’re not,” says Gardner. “It’s just been passed on to me.”

Born in Sussex, England, she grew up in Bermuda and attended Cooper Union Art School in New York, where she studied stained-glass design and first became interested in the art. She tells the story of how looking toward the famous Bible House building at 8th Street one day, she was horrified to see a wrecking ball teetering above a fourth-floor chapel. “There were these beautiful Victorian stained-glass windows and they were about to knock them down,” she recalls. “I went over and asked if I could have them. The contractor said, ‘Sure, honey,’ and took me up to see them. On the way down, he was angling for a date, and when we got to the bottom, I just ran.
Of course, I never got the windows. But that’s when I decided to make my own!”

Gardner learned more about the technical process of creating stained glass at the Rhode Island School of Design, before launching into a career covering ecclesiastical, commercial and domestic projects. “People love to say, ‘what a lovely hobby you have.’ I’m tempted to tell them to look in the dictionary. A hobby is what you do in your spare time, and I don’t have much of that!”

Indeed, the evolution of a stained-glass window is a hard-wrought one, involving many stages, some of them highly technical. “The challenge is always different each window is always different,” says Gardner. “I try to work with the client and the setting and feel what they want- modern or gothic, traditional, it’s got to tone in with the architecture.”

The first stage calls for Gardner to create a colour sketch, a prototype of what the finished window will look like. She blows these up to full size, tracing the hundreds of panels that will each be filled with a different colour, and identifying each with a number from the top sequentially down. Two copies of these line drawings are made, one on mylar, a plastic paper used in architecture. This she cuts up with three-bladed shears and then uses the patterns to cut the glass with a wheel-cutter to fit.

“As I go along, I continue designing.” Gardner explains. “I like to be able to make changes right to the end. I may readjust the colour -what I put on paper may not please me and I change it.”

Gardner uses beeswax to pin the pieces up on a glass easel with natural daylight behind it. “That gives me the opportunity to readjust the colours and recut bits of glass if I need to.”

She paints on the glass using metal oxides, before firing it in the kiln at 650 degrees Centigrade -a temperature hot enough to fuse the paint on to the glass without melting the glass itself. The process is repeated two or three times, before a staining and etching process, in which she toys with honing various shades of glass. Finally, she puts it all together by fitting lead calme around each piece of glass, soldering the joints and puttying them to prevent rattles and leaks.

“It’s like a big jigsaw,” says Gardner. By the time you’ve designed, enlarged, drawn, traced, numbered, cut each piece of glass, painted each, fired it, painted it again, you kind of know each of the thousands of pieces personally.”

She has a strong sense of what should and should not form the basic design of a stained glass creation. “I have turned down jobs such as ‘a Bermuda scene with my dog in the garden,'” and other doodled requests submitted by wannabe clients.

“They do a drawing and say, ‘do this.’ But these windows shouldn’t be a reproduction of a painting I think you should use the medium for what it should be. Transparent colour is different -you’re working with light, and it’s a total other dimension. It’s multi-dimensional. You see the glass, but you also look through the glass at the world beyond. Then the sun shines through it and it becomes magnificent!”

Gardner’s windows -which each take at least nine months “like children” -inspire a joyful whimsy in their creator when she sees them in places around the Island. “I sing in the Cathedral choir,” she says. “There’s a purplish-blue spot in one of the sailors’ uniforms in the Warriors’ Window, and when the sun moves around I catch it in my choir book on All Saints Day. I feel I can scoop it up it’s almost
liquid. It’s marvellous.”

Gardner gets her supplies from abroad -sheets of glass come from Europe, for example. “Some glass is too beautiful on a sheet. You can only use it in small portions,” she says. “You have to control it or it dictates your whole window.”

Some of her best-known creations include the ‘Presentation in the Temple’ in St. John’s Church, Pembroke, showing Mary with the Baby Jesus and peaceful turtle doves; “The Peaceable Kingdom’ in St. Anne’s Church, Southampton, depicting a menagerie of animals and children; and two huge windows in St. Andrew’s Church, one showing the history of the church, and the other its mission.

“I’ll never be able to stop going to church,” she quips. “My whole career’s in them.