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Area woman makes windows for church

Thursday, February 2, 2006

(Photo)
Wilma Stratton of Cape Girardeau is pictured with some of the windows she created for the Bement Baptist Church.
BEMENT -- When the Bement Baptist Church decided to get some custom stained glass windows, it had to look no further than Wilma Stratton.

"She's really a master of stained glass," said Delilah Tayloe, curator for the Sikeston Depot. The Depot currently has 16 of Stratton's stained glass panels on display, according to Tayloe.

"It is interesting to see how she uses different colors and textures of the stained glass to embellish the design of her work," Tayloe said.

On one piece at the Depot, for example, Tayloe noted how "she used grain and color gradations in amber-colored glass to look like feathers."

The stained glass windows for the Bement Baptist Church are just the latest among many examples of Stratton's work visible in the immediate area including windows at the First Christian Church and the round stained-glass window at Fisherman's Net in Sikeston.

While churches, homes and businesses all over southeast Missouri have sought Stratton out for custom windows, she is by no means just a local artisan. Stratton's work can be found in all 50 states and places as far as Mexico, Japan and New Zealand. "I ship things all around," Stratton said.

Born in Lutesville - now known as Marble Hill - Stratton moved to Cape Girardeau when she got married and continues to produce her work from her home studio there.

Stratton got her start in 1978 when she and her husband built a new home and decided to put stained-glass in the home's front double doors.

"I had no idea how stained glass was done - never used a glass cutter or a soldering iron or anything like that - I had no idea how they worked," she said, "but I bought a book that had the basic instructions."

Stratton began by practicing on clear window glass and some small sun catchers.

"After I practiced a little, I drew up the design for the double doors and did them," she said.

The four-foot tall, 14-inch wide panels caught more than a couple of eyes.

"Friends started coming in to see our new house and I started getting orders from other people," Stratton recalled. "It's all been word of mouth - I never advertise but I keep busy full time."

Her methods are rooted in techniques that go back for centuries.

"First I draw up my patterns and then after I do that, I pick out the colors," she said of the process. "Lots of people think it's painted but it's not."

Customers usually want her to match colors to the building's existing decor. "I do my best to please - I order the specialty glass if I don't have it," she said.

Nearly all of the designs end up being original artwork or art based on pictures from magazines customers bring in.

"You can buy a few patterns but they're never the right size or what people want," she said.

While she has an artist's eye, Stratton said she never did any artwork other than the stained glass windows. "Not really - the only thing I ever did was I used to sew a lot," she said.

Once the pattern is ready, "I make a duplicate of it and trace it off on heavy paper," she said. "And then I cut it out into pieces like a puzzle."

Stratton said she then lays the patterns over colored glass and cuts out pieces.

This can be a time-consuming part of the process depending on how intricate the picture is. "Sometimes I did like 1,000 pieces in one window," she said. "After I cut them out, I have a grinder that smooths the edges."

Once all the pieces are ready, she lays each piece of cut-out glass on her original pattern. "And that takes some time," she said.

When she has all the pieces arranged where they fit together well, the assembly process begins.

"Solder won't stick to glass, so you clean each piece of glass and wrap around the edge of each piece of glass with copper foil," Stratton said.

Then she carefully solders the pieces together - twice. "After you get it all soldered on one side, you have to turn it over and solder on the other side," she explained.

This is the one part of the process in which Stratton gets some help from her husband. "They (the windows) weigh about a ton," she said. "He said he doesn't have the patience for the cutting and soldering."

The time to complete a window varies as one window might have 100 pieces and another 500 even if they are the same size. "It depends on how intricate it is," she said. "It takes lots of hours - it takes a lot of time to do them."

Generally a window takes between two to four weeks to complete.

Complicated shapes take longer, naturally - especially human figures. "There were a lot of fingers and toes," she said. "I had to cut some very small pieces."

Stratton has lost count, but estimated she has made hundreds of pieces over the years.

Tayloe said there is a scrapbook at the Depot to show the variety of pieces produced by Stratton. "What is here at the Depot represents just a drop of the creative output of this lady," she said.

Stratton said she is "old enough that I should have quit but I enjoy it too much" and plans to continue her art "as long as I can cut glass."

Despite many requests over the years, Stratton has never taken on an apprentice. "I get that all the time," she said. "I did teach a class for awhile."

Eventually Stratton decided that she didn't have the time for both teaching and making windows.

"Making the custom windows is what I enjoy," she said. "It's a lot of fun to make the windows. The best part is when you get it all cut out and soldered and you can hold it up to the light and see the colors. It's hard to tell when it's laying down on the table how it's going to look until you hold it up to the light."