Crafting reflections of artistic scenery

Artist: A house renovation project opens a window of opportunity for one craftsman to create his own stained glasswork.

January 11, 2004|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While standing on the porch of his renovated yellow- and aqua-colored Victorian house in rural Shawsville, Danny Simpson says, "Observation comes natural to me."

The diverse landscape that he observes includes a new Shell gas station across Route 23, still a country road. In the northern part of Harford County, Simpson stands on land that's part of the Piedmont Plateau.

This fairly high elevation is flatter than the Blue Ridge foothills of his Martinsville, Va., hometown.

Artist Simpson has made a home in Shawsville for the past 17 years, watching trees, fields, landscapes and streams on his daily jog.

Now, he is putting seasonal and timeless images into original stained-glass pieces he sells from his studio and gallery at the rate of about one a month.

Simpson won a Rinehart Fellowship in sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art 28 years ago. He was a toy designer based in Baltimore from 1975 to 1989.

He was making toys such as the Spinner Rattle for the Child Growth & Development Corp. and was director of testing for products developed for Johnson & Johnson.

Before that, he worked as a machine designer and draftsman in Richmond, Va., at Sydnor Hydrodynamics Inc.

Since 1972, Simpson has exhibited sculpture, prints, painting and photography, and 19 years ago he found a place in northwestern Harford County to center his artistic work.

"I was standing in my bank in Baltimore, and there was a line. There was a table with a real estate brochure. I picked it up. I looked through it. It was a Victorian house with 11 1/2 acres, log barn."

These were the kinds of things his wife, Kate McKenzie, who is also a Rinehart School of Sculpture student, thought would be perfect, he said.

He didn't care about the house and barn's commercial zoning or the fields' agricultural zoning. He just wanted the Victorian house, land and the barn.

By 1989, after their first five years on the historic property,the couple was renovating the house and opening a studio and a gallery in the front room.

His wife, a quilter and weaver from Minnesota who works as a special education teacher in Baltimore County, sold handmade shawls, and Simpson started taking orders for custom-made stained glass.

When their 20-year-old son, Paul, was a child, Simpson found a reason to work at home, but he learned that waiting all day for a browser and dealing with 12 consignors was a job that he did not want.

He taught stained glassmaking at the Bel Air Senior Center and also considered being a college art professor and a car salesman, but he always returned to projects at his studio.

It was the renovation of his house that brought him to Harford Community College for nine credits in stained glassmaking.

"When I bought the house, right away, I knew that the door was going to go, and it seemed to me that the most logical thing to put there was a stained-glass window," he said.

"All I was doing was learning how to make my own windows, so I could do that one window in particular," he said.

But one night, the instructor said something that caught Simpson's attention: "If any of you in this class are artists, you have a big advantage over the rest of us, because you'll be able to design your own patterns."

Simpson wondered what would happen if he tried to sell some of his work. "I put a sign out front. People stopped in, and they looked at what I made. People bought what I made, and I said, `That was fun.' "

Soon, he had customers for stained glass from individuals and businesses like Bob Cardwell's Rock Ridge Woodworks in Street and Kitchens by Design in Jarrettsville.

The stained-glass customers have been pleased, McKenzie said. "Danny problem-solves very personal designs for people, of what they give him. And I think they are always pretty surprised and amazed with what they get back because he doesn't do a by-the-book kind of thing. He is an artist with it. He's not just a craftsman," she said.

For example, Douglas and Carol Regan Kettel of Meadow Stream in White Hall wanted two stained-glass windows.

"There's no light in the basement, so [we wanted to] ... give the illusion that there's actually some scenery," said Carol Kettel. Her husband, who had grown up in Fallston, found that Simpson lived down the street.

"First of all, he's wonderful to work with," Carol Kettel said. "He came, and he looked around the basement and asked us a bunch of questions. ... We were very pleased." The prices were reasonable at $725 per full-size window, she said.

Douglas Kettel said, "He wanted to combine the flowers in the foreground and the concentric circles. I liked that. He actually drew something for us and submitted it to us. He wanted to incorporate something we had, so we changed the flowers to clematis from the flower he had."

Simpson has always been restless.

"When I work, I really like to think about the people I'm doing it for," he said. "And, I think I do better work that way. If it can work with stained-glass, I'd like to see what I can do in painting.

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