A Glass Act
I saw one just like it in Michaels recently and was amazed because I kept thinking, ‘We did that 20 years ago.’”
Whether it was making Christmas trees or decorating the bedroom walls with murals and mosaics, Akins’ mother, Ellen Shaffer, was always at work on a project and giving her children an early “art school prep” in the process. It must have been a good school because today Akins is a master glassmaker who produces a line of home décor pieces and constructs leaded stained-glass windows in the classic tradition.
Despite having art in her blood, Akins has not found the path to becoming a professional glass artisan to be fast or straightforward. Ten years ago, she came to New Orleans as a licensed welder to work at the Avondale Shipyard, repairing icebreakers and naval carriers. The punishing physical labor, in a profession dominated by men, proved to be grueling and ultimately unsatisfying. “I have so much respect for people who do it,” Akins says. “However, compared to welding, glasswork, for me, is so much more creative, more enjoyable.”
Glass can also be tough, and Akins says it can be incredibly frustrating to complete a window only to have it break in shipment. Making the necessary shape can also be tricky as the glass must be scored and broken by hand –– resulting in some very nicked and scraped-up hands at the end of the day.
“It is a temperamental medium,” Akins says. “I used to try to force the glass, and it doesn’t work like that. It is like working with the grain of wood. I have a feel for it now. I’ll run my fingers along the edge and not get cut.”
Building a structurally sound pane is incredibly complicated and is ultimately a marriage of both art and engineering. Generally, stained-glass windows are built on a diagonal from corner to corner. Once the design is complete, each joint of lead came, a channeled strip of pliable metal that keeps the glass in place and supports the overall structure of the pane, is soldered and then waterproofed with a linseed-oil-and-calcium-carbonate-based putty. The artist must not only create the pictorial design but also take into consideration the weight of the glass and the position of the lead came, so as not to block or distract from the subject. Akins loves the process but sometimes gets “stuck in a corner” on the construction and spends days wondering how to complete the puzzle. “It is challenging,” she says. “I couldn’t do it every day.”
She takes a break by making a candy-colored line of modern home décor pieces, such as drawer pulls and coasters, and jewelry, all of which are created by fusing glass, melting one piece of glass into another. Akins lightheartedly likens it to baking and says: “You put things in [to the kiln], and you watch them cook. But you don’t really know how it will turn out.”
Akins, who has used jazz funeral processions and the Mardi Gras Indians as subjects for large-scale stained-glass windows, draws inspiration from New Orleans. And she says one of the most satisfying aspects of her profession is being able to create art that is an architectural part of the houses in the city she loves so much. “It has longevity,” she says with a smile as she stands on Willow Street and points to a stained-glass transom she made. “It is going to last as long as the house, which is very gratifying.”
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