April 2008 Issue
Middletown’s BeauVerre/Riordan Stained Glass Studio turns glass into art, history and memories.
Jay Moorman picks up a cutting tool and lays its edge to a stray piece of glass in his studio, taking a moment to show a visitor how it’s done. With a swift, effortless motion, he draws a line in the smooth colored surface, picks it up and snaps it — chink! — with a flick of his wrist.
“Easy,” he says. “Glass is lazy. It follows the path of least resistance. All you need is a light score, and it follows that.” The perfect, gentle curve he’s cut is the proof.
Moorman knows the characteristics of glass as well as anyone; at age 60, he’s worked with it nearly all his adult life and is more than a little passionate about the brittle, colorful material that he’s turned into a career. If he says glass is lazy, one would be hesitant to argue. What Moorman does with it, however, is amazing.
The BeauVerre/Riordan Stained Glass Studio he has built and shares with his wife in the heart of downtown Middletown brims with evidence of just how amazing. Normally, it’s packed with their handiwork, though for a while last winter admirers had to go down the street to the nearby Middletown Arts Center for a look at it, as the Moormans mounted a well-deserved retrospective show of BeauVerre stained glass and art glass. The exhibition showed what they can do, and also told their story as the culmination of a long tradition that stretches back to 19th-century Cincinnati, its immigrants and the European homelands they left.
Today, that history is reflected in the Riordan name. Moorman learned much of his craft from Walter Bambach, a Yugoslavian immigrant who learned how to work with stained glass as a boy while taking sanctuary in a monastery during World War II. In 1955, he joined the Riordan studios in Cincinnati, which had been making some of the best stained-glass windows in the world since 1838.
“Cincinnati was a hub for stained glass in the 1800s,” Moorman says. “We’re carrying on that tradition.” Bambach, who died last August, ended up running the company, and brought Moorman in on some church-window restoration projects in Cincinnati. He sold what was left of Riordan in 2002 to the Moormans’ BeauVerre studio — which, in effect, makes the renamed BeauVerre Riordan “the oldest continuous stained-glass studio in the country,” Moorman says.
The Middletown Arts Center show made much use of the scale drawings and watercolors Riordan’s artists made of the windows they produced — “cartoons,” as they’re called, that are themselves fine works of art. The Moormans have hundreds, possibly thousands, of them in the upstairs storerooms of the studio building. “It’s incredible what’s up here,” says Linda Moorman, 52, who runs the business side of things for BeauVerre/Riordan while her husband keeps his eye on the creative end.
If BeauVerre/Riordan sounds like a family affair, it is. Jay started working with stained glass “as a hobby in my basement, and went to work for an old guy in Cincinnati for scrap glass” as payment when he was in his 20s.
His job as an inspector for General Electric in Cincinnati paid the bills, but soon he was spending another 40 hours a week with glass. “I kept asking Linda if I could go into my own business, and she said no,” he says with a smile. Then came a $500,000 job creating new windows for a local mosque, “and I gave my notice at GE.” That was in 1983, and the business was under way.
The Moormans now employ nine artists, all of whom bring art degrees and particular specialties to the enterprise, such as drawing, leading or woodworking to construct window frames. One of them is son Jay Jr., 36, a glass artist. Youngest son Derrick works part-time while attending college, and niece Annie Marschetti manages the office.
The company does a mixture of restoration and new, original work, with about a 50-50 split between churches and homes. They juggle “about 30 jobs at a time,” and also offer art-glass classes.
Of his original work, Jay is intensely proud of a large, nearly perfect recreation of “The Kiss,” the 1909 Symbolist painting by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Moorman’s take on it glitters with the same golden sheen and captures the lush, romantic sweep of the famous original.
“This piece contains every kind of art-glass work,” Moorman says. “Painting, fusing, beveling.” There is even copper foil worked into the composition. In its ornate frame, it looks ready for someone’s home. What would it cost for them to put it there? “I’ve priced it not to sell,” Moorman confesses, a tad sheepishly.
A lot of the studio’s newest work is already bound for a certain location in Chicago, where a customer who’s building a $60 million mansion has commissioned BeauVerre to create five art-glass skylights, 10 double doors, windows for a butler’s pantry and a window by a fireplace. “It’ll take a year,” Moorman says, pointing out different parts of the work. “He’s my favorite customer. Price isn’t an object, and he encourages real creativity.”
Meanwhile, there’s equally painstaking restoration work — which brings its own sort of satisfaction. Evidence: the massive stained-glass window that sits on a complicated support-frame system in a corner of the studio, waiting its turn. It’s from a Baptist church in Cedarville, in Greene County between Middletown and Columbus, and at a glance one recognizes the quality. It is, indeed, a genuine Tiffany window.
“I’ve waited 35 years to get to work on a real Tiffany,” Moorman says proudly. “They don’t let just anybody work on them.” This one was created in 1895 and weighed 180 pounds by the time the BeauVerre crew unmoored it to transport to the studio for restoration — cleaning, releading and reframing that will take about a year.
Not far from the Tiffany are heavy work tables covered with pieces in progress — bits of colored glass laying atop elaborate Mylar patterns and tracing-paper blueprints. Sheets of glass ready to be cut and worked sit in well-organized, numbered wooden slots, and the staff is careful not to draw from Jay’s special supply — antique glass, much of it one-of-a-kind, that he’s bought or salvaged from old buildings around the country.
The Moormans like old wood, too. The four-story 5-and-10 store they bought and rescued from demolition in 2005 to turn into the BeauVerre studio (they moved from Jay’s original location, in a local strip mall) is filled with antique furniture and dark wood saved from an old Middletown school building that was razed about the same time. One building dies, another lives on with some of the spirit of the first; the Moormans have spent a good part of their lives keeping the past alive and moving into the future, and show little sign of stopping.
Jay says he can’t imagine doing any other work, and yet like all exacting craftsmen admits that every job brings new surprises and challenges. “I really haven’t mastered this yet,” he says quietly. “You learn something new every day.” He points to a saying carved into some of the beautiful wood from McKinley School.
It says: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” It’s Chaucer.
Jay says: “That’s totally how I feel.”