A higher calling|It’s fitting that this reverend’s hobby is stained glass

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 27, 2009

It wasn’t his only inspiration, but the Rev. Mark Bleakley claims comic books definitely had an influence on his stained glass art.

“From the time I was a kid, I drew on the floor of my bedroom,” Bleakley said. “I drew comic books.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

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That was in his hometown north of Pittsburgh, Pa., long before he would be creating religious masterpieces in his Vicksburg studio. Bleakley, 36, has been rector of Holy Cross Anglican Church for the past two years, and after eight years of study and work he thinks, “Even my comic book drawings actually ended up playing in because some of the old images that they did in Medieval cathedrals are very much like graphics out of a comic book. They both have that similar simplicity.”

Bleakley grew up in a Christian tradition far more fundamental than the Anglicans, and it took him a while to fit art with Christianity. As he began to study the Middle Ages, he said, he fell in love with Gothic architecture and, to him, it seemed like a beautiful marriage of theology and art.

Stained glass in cathedrals, he said, appeared as early as the reign of Charlemagne in the 800s, but it was a French abbot, Suger de St. Denis, who incorporated Gothic elements, such as flying buttresses, in design, opening up space for huge windows. That was in the 12th century. He combined theology and technology and was the mastermind of Gothic art, “looking at it as brilliant works, illuminating the mind and leading one in prayer to God,” for most will agree that stained glass is conducive to a worshipful atmosphere.

Bleakley began working with stained glass when he was in the seminary in Houston, Texas. He took a short course in the intricacies of making stained glass windows, and before it was over he sent out resumes to every studio in town.

“One actually called me back,” he said. It was the Lighthouse Glass Studio, and “they just wanted me to clean windows,” but after a couple of weeks the owner put him to work building windows.

Before that, he had worked in a Pittsburgh shop that restored windows and also learned cabinet work and a lot about craftsmanship. At the restoration shop, he worked with a man who was a third-generation stained glass artisan. He had brought with him to this country the European traditions, an accumulation of the skills and talents of many people, working together.

“I picked his brain,” Bleakley said, “and perused the archives which contained everything they had done for a century.” It seems like it had prepared him for his venture into working with stained glass, that “it was just a very natural fit.”

Though he may rely on some ideas from the past, Bleakley tries to create without copying. His patterns are original. He draws them, makes copies, puts them together and meticulously cuts and pieces the glass.

His wife, Michelle, who also does stained glass when she has time (a 5-year-old son keeps her busy), has a master’s degree in theater lighting, and while Bleakley admits that he isn’t great on colors, she is, which is a wonderful help to him. It is a job he definitely couldn’t do if he were color blind.

The tools he works with are pretty simple — a glass cutter (two styles) and a pliers-like device. The grinder he describes as, “one of the improvements we have over the Middle Ages.” Most of the work is done by hand.

It’s natural that his love is religious art, that it is his main focus, but occasionally he goes beyond those bounds such as when he does an art nouveau piece — “kind of like furthering my education.”

Some of his work is “just because I wanted to do it,” but he has also completed numerous commissions including windows for two Houston churches, and he has many pieces in private collections. Last spring, he won second and third place ribbons in the three-dimensional category in the Vicksburg Art Association’s spring show.

His earliest pieces, he said, were abstracts, but now he works along traditional lines, perhaps with a contemporary flair. He prefers leaded scenes, but he also uses copper foil. Some of his glass is part of the stash he brought with him to Vicksburg, and the rest he orders. From the time he completes his design until he finishes the project, it takes anywhere from 60 to 80 hours. In addition to windows, he also makes smaller items such as sun catchers and icons. His favorite work is his “St. Michael window — it hit me right in the heart.” He also created a St. Francis window for the retired Anglican bishop.

Bleakley has taught two workshops at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center, and he hopes to have another class in the spring.

“The more I do this, the more I think it is a calling,” he said, for what was an avocation has just about become a vocation.

Besides, stained glass, he said, “seems to kind of fit the ministry.”