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Judson Studios Takes a 12th-Century Art Form Into the 21st Century

Hear David Judson speak about his great great grandfather William Lees Judson and the oldest family-owned stained glass studio in the United States.

In the little-known, long-forgotten Northeast LA enclave of Garvanza – once a thriving community along the Arroyo Seco, named after the garbanzo bean plants that used to flourish there – you’ll find Judson Studios, where its master craftsmen have actively cut, painted, and assembled glass since 1920.

You could say that the historic studio — the oldest family-run art glass company in the country —  is keeping the medieval art of stained glass alive and well. After all, those techniques haven’t changed much since the 12th century, but few people know the ins-and-outs of the craft anymore. 

But while that would be true of Judson Studios, which was at the forefront of the California Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we’re now a few years into the 21st century — and that’s no longer the entire story.

Just two years ago, Judson Studios revolutionized both its own business and the entire industry of architectural glass. The studio now not only creates works of art using the segmented, colored glass so commonly found in ecclesiastical settings, but also renders innovations in fused glass.

The studio used this innovation to create the world’s largest stained glass window for the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

Church of Resurrection | Courtesy of Judson Studios
A rendering of the world's largest stained glass at the Church of Resurrection | Courtesy of Judson Studios
Judson Studios at the installation of the world's largest stained glass window | Courtesy of Judson Studios
Judson Studios at the installation of the world's largest stained glass window | Courtesy of Judson Studios

The church had been looking to install a contemporary take on a traditionally liturgical window, so Judson Studios presented the concept of fusing the glass.

The differences between the two might not be obvious to the average churchgoer — or even to some of the clients who approach Judson Studios for a potential collaboration.

The original technique from the Middle Ages requires the artisan to cut pieces of colored glass into shapes and then join them together with a lead-based material called "came," which acts as a "seam" between each of the segments. The artisan also uses a brush to paint any pattern or figures — like faces, animals, flowers, crosses, etc. — on the glass.

With the breakthrough technique of fusing the glass, however, artisans place multiple shards of glass under high heat in a kiln under fire to “melt” the patterns into them. While some accents may be painted, generally the bulk of the design results from the artisan strategically arranging the different pieces (in various sizes and colors) that meld together in the melting process.

Church of Resurrection | Courtesy of Judson Studios
Church of Resurrection | Courtesy of Judson Studios

In the end, with the Church of the Resurrection, Judson Studios incorporated traditional elements with innovation by fusing the glass in multiple sections and connecting them with leading elements, as they would have in the “old world” style.

Creating such a monumental piece compelled the heirloom studio to take a giant leap out of the Middle Ages and into the future of art and architectural glass.

But first, it needed to expand. Originally built as the USC College of Fine Arts — with William Lees Judson, a painter, as its founder and USC’s first fine art professor — the Garvanza studio on Avenue 66 has been the hub of activity for the rescue and restoration of historic stained glass windows and the design and fabrication of new (but traditionally-made) glass projects for nearly a century.

But, the landmark status of their Garvanza studio proved too restrictive for any real innovation — and so, now you’ll find a new, second location of Judson Studios, less than a half-mile down York Boulevard and across the Arroyo Seco in South Pasadena.

Judson Studios | Sandi Hemmerlein
Judson Studios | Sandi Hemmerlein
Hear what it took to build the world's largest fused glass window

Not only did the studio need physical space to spread out for such a massive project, but it also needed to upgrade its antique equipment. Custom-built kilns were installed in a hurry, all hands were placed on deck, and the church unveiled its finished product earlier this year.

Upon its completion, the 100-foot by 40-foot window features imagery from the Bible, dominated by a portrait of Jesus Christ at its center alongside other spiritual as well as civil rights icons, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

And should any damage possibly happen in the next 100 years, the leading that separates the monumental window into multiple segments will make the task of repairing it not quite so insurmountable. 

This wasn’t just a one-off project or even just an experiment to see if the studio could actually do it. Rather, it was a watershed moment for Judson Studios to turn everything it knew on its head and take a fresh look at the art of glass.

Right now, when it comes to firing and fusing, no other workshop is currently doing what Judson Studios is — though that will most certainly change as more works are completed.

Process of creating a David Flores piece | Courtesy of Judson Studios
Process of creating a David Flores piece | Courtesy of Judson Studios

And that’s as it should be. It means the studio is once again leading a movement.

From a distance, or with just a passing glance, some of the new work that’s coming out of Judson Studios now may not look all that different from the traditional, painted stained glass projects that it has built its reputation on.

According to current president and fifth-generation family member David Judson, that’s because Judson Studios still approaches every project from a painter’s perspective — just as it did when it was first founded by his great-great-grandfather.

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After all, W.L. Judson himself was a painter, first and foremost.

But even with that “old world” approach, the progress that the studio has made in developing its fused glass techniques has been so innovative that it’s attracted the attention of a number of contemporary and even street artists — including those who have never worked in this particular medium before — to both fabricate and collaborate on new glass projects.

The exciting part for the studio, Judson says, is “showing these artists what’s possible.”

David Flores piece | Courtesy of Judson Studios
David Flores piece | Courtesy of Judson Studios

One such artist is David Flores, whose California-inspired, streetwise visual style — as evident in his murals, paintings, and sculptures, as well as in his commercial art — could only be described until now as  “stained glass” without the glass.

Flores has been interested in working with an actual glass canvas for some time now, but, as he explains it, “Sometimes it takes the right people to come along and make it happen.”

And with only six weeks to complete it from the moment of its conception, Flores — along with eight mastercraft artisans from Judson Studios — has debuted “The Muralist,” a seven-by-three-foot, 300-pound panel of both stained and fused glass that’s on view in the Second Gallery at Sullivan Goss in Santa Barbara through September 3, 2017.

David Flores with finished work | Courtesy of Judson Studios
David Flores with finished work | Courtesy of Judson Studios

Another piece that’s fresh out of the fire is a collaboration with Iranian-born painter Amir H. Fallah, who says that his glasswork with Judson allows him to “take an ancient process and combine it with contemporary imagery that we don’t often associate with the material.”

As he says, “Working in glass with Judson seemed like a logical way to create my portraits in a material that uses light as a tool to illuminate color and also has a rich history within portraiture.”

The result? Colors that vibrate and shimmer as no oil on canvas ever could.

Judson says he suspects there are still more architectural applications that he and his staff haven’t even thought of yet – though they’ve already established so many variations on the theme of fused glass in a relatively short time.

Creating Amir H. Fallah's piece | Courtesy of Judson Studios
Creating Amir H. Fallah's piece | Courtesy of Judson Studios

That is, two years versus multiple centuries.

Part of the challenge is that they’re trying to churn out a precise result from a somewhat imprecise science. Starting with sheet glass — either as a base layer or broken into tiny fragments called “frit” — the studio workers must be equal parts artist and alchemist to create the desired color gradients and textures.

After years of experimenting, they’ve learned how to manipulate the factors of time, temperature, and chemical composition to create a piece of fired glass that looks like, for example, the night sky, while strategic layering may create the three-dimensional appearance of a relief sculpture.

And yet still others can look splattered, mottled, beaded, and bubbled.

Finished Amir H. Fallah work | Courtesy of Judson Studios
Finished Amir H. Fallah work | Courtesy of Judson Studios

Sure, there are still some “happy accidents” that occur in the studio, but they’ve gotten most of the factors that are known at this time pretty under their control.

Yet, Judson says with a nod of his head and a twinkle in his eye, the studio has “only scratched the surface of what can be done.”

The next area they’d like to get into, he adds, is public art — a vast frontier that’s already embraced the types of muralists and street artists that Judson has brought into the fused glass fold.

Of course, as Judson says, some of their clients still prefer “the old kind” — so, for now, the studio is still straddling both the past and the future, across both sides of the Arroyo.

And since “the old kind” usually uses enamel paint — a type of paint that’s essentially made of glass itself — the Judson family has already been fusing in one way or another and creating seamless designs for ages now.

Judson's glass handiwork — both their original creations and restoration projects — can be found all over the world, in locations both sacred and secular, as well as commercial and residential.

In Southern California in particular, Judson has brought its connection to USC full circle by just completing installation of stained glass windows in the dining hall at USC Village, a new residential and retail complex on the University of Southern California campus at the former location of the University Village shopping center.

The new windows join Judson’s other project on campus, at the USC Caruso Catholic Center, whose cathedral-style windows in the sanctuary were fabricated and installed between 2011 and 2013, and whose rose window Judson just completed and was unveiled earlier this year.

USC Caruso Catholic Center | Sandi Hammerlein
USC Caruso Catholic Center | Sandi Hemmerlein

You can find some of the more spiritual-leaning windows they’ve worked on at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles in Wilshire Center, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, Mountain View Mausoleum (and its “Radiance Corridor”) in Altadena, El Portal de la Paz at Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuaries in Whittier, and the crypt underneath the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown LA.

Aside from a few private homes of celebrities and other figures of prominence (including the privately-owned Ennis House and the Hollyhock House, now a public house museum), Judson’s more secular work can also be seen at the Ace Hotel on Broadway, The Spirit Guild distillery in the Arts District, the Jewel Court at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, and the Rotunda skylight at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park.

Ennis House | Courtesy of Judson Studios
Ennis House | Courtesy of Judson Studios

In fact, there are so many installations of Judson’s work over the last century that the studio itself has lost track of some of them.

And now, there are so many more to come.

Top Image: Margaret Cho's private residence, art by Dame Darcy | Courtesy of Judson Studios

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