All that glitters is glass

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January 27, 2015 9:04 AM

Laurie Nielsen uses a soldering iron to build a piece of stained glass art. Soldering irons heat to oven temperatures, allowing Nielsen to join pieces of glass together, binding them with liquid metal solder. - Josef Jacobson Photo

Laurie Nielsen brandishes a glass cutting device and gently presses its blade into a pane of coloured glass. The glass cutter, which resembles a metal toothbrush, makes a squeaking sound as its blade slides inwards from the glass’ edge. With the aid of a pair of pliers, Nielsen easily snaps the glass along its scar. This is the first step in building a piece of stained glass art.

“There are four basic things that we do,” said Nielsen, a stained glass artist and part-time substitute teacher. “First, we cut the pattern out, then we grind it to grind the sharp edges off and to make it fit better, then we wrap the copper foil around the edges and then you put it all back together and solder it with soldering irons and then that gives it the strength and holds it together.”

Nielsen is in the art studio at the Lloydminster Cultural and Science Centre. Whole and broken panes of stained glass are sprawled across a work table. Some colours are solid, while others have wavy patterns and shimmer when held up to the light.

Nielsen takes a cut piece of glass and grinds its sharp, uneven edges off. When she is satisfied with the shape and smoothness of her glass pieces, Nielsen tightly wraps copper tape around the edges. Her experience is evident by her speed and precision as she completes her task. She then takes a soldering iron, a short wand heated to over 400 C, and, like a quill, taps it against a coil of tin and lead, called solder. She then places her glass pieces next to each other and paints the copper tape with hot liquid metal, joining them together. She feels the glass warm in her hands as the solder makes a sizzling sound against the copper. The solder hardens almost instantly. Nielsen now holds the beginning of a piece of stained glass art.

Nielsen first started working with stained glass 30 years ago. She was always attracted to the art form and talked an artist into showing her how it was done. Now she makes her own patterns and designs original work. But at first it wasn’t easy being an artist in northern Saskatchewan.

“It was really hard to get glass up there, you had to go to the cities like Saskatoon or Prince Albert,” she said. “I never seemed to have enough glass, so I was making these little things because I didn’t want to use up my glass and this was kind of frustrating.”

She started teaching classes herself in order to bring more stained glass up north. Eventually she started selling extra glass and arts supplies.

“I’ve made lampshades, window panels, Kleenex box covers, jewelry boxes, terrariums,” she said. “When I first got into it 30 years ago I was constantly doing it. I don’t do it was much anymore. I do a few commissions.”

Nielsen is a veteran of the Saskatchewan art scene and she has lived all over the province. Originally growing up on a farm in northern Saskatchewan, she went to university in Saskatoon, moved to Buffalo Narrows to the north after that, then to Hudson Bay to the east near the Manitoba border. Nielsen has lived in Lloydminster for the last five years. For close to 20 years, Nielsen was involved with the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils (OSAC), spending six years as a board member. Through OSAC she had the chance to travel the province meeting regional artists.

“This province is like one big small town. I probably know someone from almost every town in this province,” she said. “It’s got a vibrant arts community and it’s a very generous arts community. People love to share what they’re doing and talk to other people who are in the arts… We’ve got some wonderful artists here.”

Nielsen, who also practises calligraphy, painting and wood burning, says art is a family tradition.

“My father was a wonderful wood carver and sketcher,” she said. “But he never had access to (art lessons), so he was totally self-taught and I’m for the most part self-taught as well, but it runs in the family. My son in Edmonton is an artist and that’s how he makes his money, he teaches art.”

Nielsen says living in rural areas has influenced her art.

“A lot of my stained glass pieces incorporate nature, like cattails and flowers and birds and sky and sun and water,” she said. “I do feel very connected to nature because I love animals, (I’ve had) horses and cats and dogs ... and we’re very outdoorsy, we like canoeing and kayaking and camping and fishing.”

Nielsen has spent time as a college instructor and now she teaches at grade schools in Lloydminster and northwest Saskatchewan.

Her work schedule allows her time to work on her art, and now she’s sharing her passion with the community. For the past five years Nielsen has taught stained glass art classes at the Lloydminster Cultural and Science Centre. And watching other people discover stained glass for the first time has become a new source of inspiration.

“What I love about giving these stained glass classes is people are so enthusiastic and when they start learning to do something they’re so intense and they don’t want to stop,” she said. “What I really love is how everybody chooses something different. I’ll give them a variety of things to do and everybody will choose something different and it’s usually not something I would choose and that’s what I love about it because it inspires me to see people learning.”

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