From the time that she was a young girl growing up in Syracuse, New York, Forest resident Robyn Sloan always felt a compelling attraction to nature – a fascination that would eventually inspire her artwork.
The middle of three girls, Robyn moved with her family to Lynchburg, Virginia, when she was eight years old. As a child, she spent much of her playtime exploring the woods and connecting with the beauty of the world around her. Creating things with her imagination and bringing them to life with her hands drew her attention from a very early age and is reflected in her art.
In the early 1970s, Robyn attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI, now commonly known as Virginia Tech), focusing her studies on Clothing, Textiles, and Related Arts. However, an art elective soon led her in a different direction. She began experimenting with a multitude of mediums and ultimately found herself drawn to the Fine Arts major.
“I’ve experimented with sewing, quilting, painting, pottery, pen and ink, photography, sculpture, and stained glass,” Robyn explains. “My drive is essentially to create with my hands.”
At VPI, Robyn (then Robyn Wick) was distracted from her studies by a “tall math major” named David Sloan who soon succeeded in sweeping her off her feet. The two married in 1973 and made their way to Arlington, Virginia. Just as soon as they put down roots, Robyn jumped into homemaking and exploring creative opportunities in the local area.
A great love discovered
A global pioneering surge of glass experimentation began in the late 1970s and kismet came calling for Robyn in a craft class where she was introduced to stained glass. Her interest piqued, she soon joined a newly formed group of stained glass artists who founded what is now the National Capital Art Glass Guild (NCAGG).
Robyn’s association with the NCAGG’s broad range of artists and their methods afforded her an exceptional education in all manner of the stained glass medium. It also revealed the further benefits of providing exposure, selling, collaboration opportunities with fellow artists, and the ability to share stained glass with schoolchildren – something she has since done myriad times.
During her learning phase as a budding stained glass artist, she crafted lampshades and ornaments but found the most joy and fulfillment in designing and building architectural panels. In the 1980s, Robyn apprenticed with the artist-in-residence at Washington, D.C.’s Wesley Theological Seminary. There the two designed, constructed, and installed large panels for numerous churches, including a 500-square-foot window wall for the chapel at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Robyn continued to accept stained glass commissions for private homes throughout the Metro area but gradually eased herself into pursuing projects of personal interest. “Because I did not have to rely on my glass work for a living wage, I enjoyed the freedom of stretching myself to master new techniques,” Robyn shares. Although she continued to explore other art forms, she has remained attracted to the ever-changing color and character of glass under various lighting conditions.
The process by which one creates stained glass is not a simple one by any means. Much thought, planning, and precision goes into each project, and every piece is labor intensive to some degree.
“Careful glass selection can enhance any design by tweaking the color, opacity, and texture to achieve desired effects,” Robyn explains.
While nature and color combinations most often inspire her, she also likes to include whimsy or attempt to represent a specific concept. The design must also take the physical properties of the glass into consideration so as not to cause stress cracks. Once Robyn draws her design to scale, she makes copies of it from which she cuts out pattern pieces and on which she assembles the panel.
Cutting begins after a design is established and glass is selected. “Respecting the intrinsic character of glass and cutting accurately are both imperative,” Robyn states. Working over a light table, she positions her pattern pieces on glass to aesthetic advantage and cuts them. With each piece numbered to coordinate with the base cartoon (a full-size drawing illustrating the detail of her design) and all the pieces cut, Robyn evaluates the panel’s overall appearance. In some cases, she may recut pieces to achieve the desired effect of her vision.
The next step is to assemble the pieces by encasing the glass edges with metal – either lead, zinc, or copper foil, depending on the panel’s size and the amount of detail within her design. Robyn says she has a tendency to envision detail, so she has a proclivity toward the copper foil method. Louis C. Tiffany, a prolific master of the decorative arts in America’s Gilded Age, imagined the concept of wrapping tiny pieces of glass with copper foil as a way of using scrap glass from his large window commissions. As Robyn attests, Tiffany’s technique allows for thinner lead lines (called such whether they are made of lead or copper foil) and great detail.
Drawing nearer to the end result
Following the piece cutting, the frame material – often a rigid zinc – is fitted onto a heavy board lined with the base pattern. Glass pieces are then inserted into the frame and aligned with the pattern. The panel is meticulously built out from a corner by sandwiching pieces between lead cames (H-shaped lengths of lead that fit around glass to secure them in place to each other). Nails are tapped along the expanding edges to ensure that the glass pieces stay in place and match the base pattern. When the glass and leads reach the end of Robyn’s pattern, she puts the final framing zinc in place.
Now it’s time to fasten everything together. Where the ends of cames meet, Robyn secures the joints by soldering them together with a tin/lead alloy. She also solders the lead ends meeting the zinc frame, then carefully turns the panel over and solders the reverse side. Both sides of the panel must be thoroughly cleaned to remove all of the acid flux that spread during the soldering process before cementing can commence.
A vision achieved
The purpose of cementing is to provide strength and to make the window weatherproof. Cementing is achieved using putty, made primarily of a mixture of whiting and linseed oil, to adhere the lead to the glass. Robyn forces the putty under the lead came around the edge of each individual piece of glass of her panel, scraping away excess and scrubbing the panel with a stiff brush and whiting to remove stray fragments that might otherwise harden in place. While the putty cures – a necessary process – it oozes a bit, requiring the artist’s continued commitment to cleanup.
The same process is repeated on the panel’s opposite side. In order to keep up with the curing putty, Robyn says that a panel might sometimes be flipped over multiple times over several days. To reduce shine and blend the color of solder joints with the lead came, she spreads a patina over them to achieve her desired finish.
More often than not, Robyn tends to focus her energy primarily on cold glass – art created without heating the glass – but has also tinkered with hot glass techniques. To enhance her designs she has incorporated such procedures as etching, sandblasting, and painting on glass, and is now leaning toward more abstracted representations. “I find myself simplifying design and relying more on how I interpret the movement I see in the glass,” Robyn shares of her craft.
Building upon the future
Robyn and Dave joined The Forest at Duke in September 2019. Recognizing their need to plan for the future, they had researched continuing care retirement communities in the area and appreciated the variety of amenities available at The Forest, eventually choosing this one as their own. “My favorite perk was not having to plan and fix dinner every night,” Robyn states.
Since moving onto campus, she has worked hard to relocate her stained glass studio from the house she and Dave shared in North Durham into a room at their cottage. With the amount of materials she possesses for her craft, space restrictions have proven to be a challenge, but she continues to strive in the pursuit of an art form she loves so passionately. And, though she has held onto a few of her pieces, many of them have been donated to local charities. Admirably, she would love to create eye-catching stained glass panels for The Forest’s Health Center.
“I’d like to be able to contribute my skills toward worthwhile projects or situations that are close to my heart,” she says.
Over the years, Robyn has endeavored to improve her surroundings. She took up landscape architecture, learned heavy construction methods, and picked up additional skills like drywalling, setting tile, rock laying, and kitchen designing. In addition to working with a small contractor performing home repair and remodeling, she also labored alongside her husband when they added a two-story addition on a previous home. The couple performed all of the work themselves – from the foundation to the roof and everything in between.
In all of this, Robyn found a passion for construction that continues to inspire her undertakings today. A hardworking member of the Durham Habitat for Humanity siding crew for many years, Robyn has put her knowledge of home building and improvement to good use. The same group of dedicated siding volunteers formerly included fellow Forest residents Dean McCumber and Debbie Chesnut.
Passion for her art and her workmanship glows in her eyes when she speaks. “Creating beauty strongly determines my activities,” Robyn affirms.
Truly her stained glass masterpieces and legacy of service are proof of that.
—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist
Header image: In Tuas Manus (In His Hands), a window panel created in 1997 by Robyn and students at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Robyn Sloan)