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Catholic Vancouver Dec. 10, 2017

Artists paint churches with stained glass beauty

By Agnieszka Ruck

Laura and John Gilroy of Gilroy Stained Glass in their studio in south Vancouver. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

This is the second article in a seven-part series on sacred art.

VANCOUVER—A husband-and-wife duo trained by one of England’s oldest stained glass studios is now creating stunning pieces of art for Canadian churches.

John and Laura Gilroy are the masters behind brightly coloured windows at cathedrals in Victoria and Kamloops as well as several churches in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

“People ask us: ‘How do you work together all the time and you’ve been married for 20-odd years?’ Well, I don’t know,” laughed John as he welcomed The B.C. Catholic for a behind-the-scenes look at their Vancouver studio.

Their love for art – and for each other – began in England.

Becoming an apprentice

Laura and John both trained (and met) in Bristol at James Clark and Eaton, one of England’s oldest stained glass studios at the time.

“I felt like I had always grown up with it,” said Laura. Her father was an apprentice at a glass studio that did leaded windows. From the age of 11, Laura had an interest in his work.

“I would design ornamental leaded windows for him because he couldn’t draw at all,” she laughed. Her father crafted windows based on her drawings and took her to churches to see leaded windows and stained glass.

“It was natural to gravitate to the studio that was in Bristol,” said Laura. She first entered the studio at age 18 while working on a piece for one of her father’s clients. That’s where she met John, then 22, whose entry to the studio was quite different.

Laura Gilroy puts finishing touches on a piece of glass. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

“I had just finished my advanced level art and I didn’t know what degree to take,” he said. “I thought: ‘I really want to go to university, and go to the pubs, and do all the sorts of things you do when you’re 18, but I suppose I’d better think long term.’”

He took his portfolio to James Clark and Eaton, and after showing some skill with a paintbrush, was brought in for a three-month unpaid apprenticeship.

He still remembers the words of his mentor: “If you come here and you do your apprenticeship, you’ll come out of it this level an artist, up here. If you go and get – what do you call it, an art degree? – you’re going to be this level an artist ...” the man said, holding his hand low. “There is a difference between a fine art studio and just getting a degree in fine art.”

John took the unpaid apprenticeship and started out by sweeping floors. He lived with his parents and worked two part-time jobs on evenings and weekends to support himself.

“Meanwhile my friends had jobs as office workers and they were going out to pubs in the evening,” said John, whose earnings started at 3,000 pounds a year, when his friends were earning 10,000-pound salaries. “It was really hard and old school, but it did teach you an awful lot, from design through to installation, how things worked properly and why you did it that way.”

He helped Laura with the final details on that piece for her father, she became accepted as an apprentice at the studio, and the rest is history.

John and Laura work on a window of St. Andre Bessette. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

In the studio

John and Laura started their own studio in 1998, in keeping with their training from James Clark and Eaton.

“We had to be able to paint exactly the same style as the artist 115 years ago,” said John. “If it was a head of Christ and had a big area missing, we had to be able to re-draw the area and paint it. You had to match the original, brushstroke for brushstroke.”

Tough as their training was, it gave the Gilroys the skills to complete entire stained glass windows from start to finish.

A Gilroy window starts out as a watercolour design, which Laura paints to scale to show colours, tones, and overall layout of the piece. Then she completes a full-size black-and-white drawing of the window, called a cartoon. She also creates a structural drawing showing the exact size and shape of each piece of glass and how it will fit in the overall structure.

“You’ve got to be able to cut the glass so it’s just inside the black line,” John explained. “We give ourselves a sixteenth of an inch for fitting, so it has to be pretty accurate.” The Gilroys prefer European mouth-blown glass over North American machine-made glass, saying mouth-blown glass is more colourful and has more sparkle.

The paint they use on the glass looks a lot like mud. It contains gum arabic, which helps paint stick to glass, and gold, which protects against pollution. They cover pieces of glass entirely with mud-like paint, then slowly remove it with various brushes and, for fine details, the tip of a pin.

John paints on glass for a window of St. Andre Bessette. (Photo courtesy Gilroy Stained Glass)
Laura works on a window of St. Andre Bessette. (Photo courtesy Gilroy Stained Glass)

“Highlights, semi-tones, definitions, are all done by taking paint off. It’s all working in the negative,” said John. “You’re not looking at what you’re creating, you’re looking at what you’re leaving behind.”

Any coloured window that skips this process is technically not stained glass; it’s a leaded window.

After glass pieces are painted, they are fired in a small kiln that can reach 720 C in 15 minutes. After the glass cools, John adds the lead, solders the connections, and brushes an oil-based putty between the lead and the glass to waterproof the window.

In Britain, “this thing had to be designed and built to withstand extremely high winds, lots of rain, and be just as fresh as a daisy the next day.”

Final product

The pair moved to Canada in 2005 and have been working out of a studio in south Vancouver since 2006.

Their brightly coloured windows decorate several Catholic cathedrals, churches, and chapels in B.C. including All Saints Church in Coquitlam, Holy Spirit Church in New Westminster, the John Paul II Pastoral Centre in Vancouver, Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kamloops, St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Victoria, and St. John the Apostle Church in Vancouver. Their largest work, at St. John the Apostle, spans nearly 300 square feet.

John installs a stained glass window at St. John the Apostle Church. (Photo courtesy Gilroy Stained Glass)

They have also created stained glass windows for other churches, restored leaded windows for private homes, and supplied watercolour designs and cartoons to nearly 40 studios across the United States.

The Gilroys now have three decades of experience (and 20+ years of marriage) behind them.

“Art forms are incredibly important to history. It’s time consuming, but we’re leaving a legacy. If we don’t protect the heritage we have, we’re not going to be able to track our history in the future,” said Laura.

“You have to invest in the art and it all comes into the bigger fabric of what will be our history. To us, our sacred buildings need to look as beautiful as we can make them.”

The Gilroys are currently working on stained windows for St. Joseph’s in Langley and for their parish, St. Joseph the Worker in Richmond.

See www.bccatholic.ca for more articles on local sacred artists.

Window at St. John the Apostle Church. (Photo courtesy Gilroy Stained Glass)

Detail of window at St. John the Apostle Church. (Photo courtesy Gilroy Stained Glass)