Crafting timeless images

Artists: A Shawsville resident uses stained glass as his medium.

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 Victorian house in rural Shawsville, Danny Simpson says, "Observation comes natural to me."

The diverse landscape that he observes includes a new Shell station across Route 23, still a country road. Here in the northern part of Harford County, Simpson stands on land of the Piedmont plateau.

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

Here, artist Danny Simpson has made a home, watching trees, fields, landscape and stream on his daily jog.

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

Danny 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 of 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; 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 fellow Rinehart School of Sculpture student, thought would be perfect, he said.

He didn't care about the commercial zoning of the house, the agricultural zoning of the fields or the commercial zoning for the barn. 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 opened 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 younger, Simpson found a reason to work at home, but he learned that waiting all day for a browser and dealing with 12 consignors were jobs that he did not want.

He taught stained-glass making at the Bel Air Senior Center and 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-glass making.

"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."

"I wonder what would happen if I tried to sell some of this," Simpson said. "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 work -- individuals and businesses such as 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 by-the-book kind of things. 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," Simpson 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.

"I get to create things that I feel proud of, when I'm turned loose on the design. So, I'm willing to do that as opposed to just making stuff, and I have no interest in just making stuff. I want it to be interesting stuff.

"All they have to do is decide who or where or what they want to see, and just get me started with ideas and I'll get them something," he said.

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