Stained Glass Tiles
A Vision of the Future for UUFD
By Helen Merritt, Artist
In the Beginning
When the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb found sanctuary in their new church home in a cold winter in December, 2002, there was no denying the building needed a bit of “sprucing up.” After all, it was decades old, having belonged to the Eagles Club, and its dark and dim nature ran contrary to the bright light and enthusiasm that radiated through the pulse of the congregation. They had hopes. They had dreams. They had visions of what an ideal Fellowship would not only feel like, but look like. They needed the building to reflect their anticipations for a glowing future.
Enter Helen Merritt, one of UUFD's founders and a retired NIU art professor. Looking at the building through the lens of her artistic skills, she realized she had half a ton of clay and a forty-year-old kiln. It was the perfect match. The vision was born.
Constructing a 1,000-tile wall was no small feat! Before even a single tool was used, Helen meticulously prepared diagrams and designs detailing her vision of the finished product.
A few members of the UU Fellowship and some of Helen's friends gathered weekly in Helen's basement to make tiles. Helen had built plaster molds to use. Each mold would form four clay tiles, each tile four and a half inches square. There were four molds, so the team could build as many as 16 tiles in an evening. Since there are approximately 1,000 tiles in the Wall, it represents a minimum of 62 evenings of work – well over a year of continuous effort.
To make tiles, they began by preparing balls of clay to a workable consistency, then rolling it out into a small slab. Each slab was coaxed into one square of the mold. A block of wood was centered in the mold, and the clay extending beyond the bock was gathered and pushed in around the block to form a ridge between the block and the edge of the mold. Edges were smoothed, and the center wooden block removed. Using small square metal cutters, rather like cookie cutters, “windows” were cut in the central area of each tile. Once all four tiles in the mold were finished, they were allowed to dry. Once dry, each tile was smoothed and then Helen mixed glazes and applied some to each tile. The tiles were loaded into Helen's kiln and fired. Helen's kiln holds 40-plus tiles, so a minimum of 25 firings were done.
Helen secured colored glass, including turquoise, yellow, red, and orange, which was carefully scored, cut into pieces, and glued to fit inside the tiles. Tiles were sorted by color and design, and then sorted into collections for each panel.
When the tiles were ready, the carpentry and electrical team installed fluorescent lighting and wooden frames for the east and west sides of the wall. Tiles were arranged and then glued onto acrylic panels. After the glue has set, the spaces between the tiles were filled with grout. Then tiles were cleaned and finished with an acrylic medium. Finished acrylic panels were attached to the wooden structure. After all tile panels were in place, the drywall was cut and installed. The drywall was “mudded,” sanded, and finally painted. Then wood trim was stained, varnished, measured, cut, and installed.
By February, 2007, members of the installation team met nearly every day at UUFD to assemble the Wall, making sure it was ready for its debut at the May 12, 2007 Dedication Ceremony for the stained glass tiles.
A Few Bumps along the Way
For nearly a year, thought, planning, and dedication went into deciding how to illuminate the stained glass tiles throughout the sanctuary. The team eventually installed dimmable fluorescent light behind the wall to stream color and light through the space, adding a sense of peace, calm, and serenity to the sanctuary. Cutting the acrylic also proved a bit difficult until the right kind of cutting blade was found. Also, preparing the tile panels for installation became a time-consuming process because of the need to clean the excess grout from tiles.
“The wall introduces a more spiritual feel into the architecture of the Sanctuary.”
“It was a real privilege to work with Helen. She brought out the inner artist in me.”
“I enjoyed working with Helen and the installation process. It was a real team effort.”
“Creating the tiles and assembling the panels was rather like making a patchwork quilt. The finished walls create a similar sense of warmth and comfort.”
“It is because of Helen's many special qualities that so many of us from such diverse backgrounds volunteered to become Helen's mud turtles for the tile wall project. It was a special time for me, full of camaraderie and creativity that I will never forget.”
“I'm honored that I could be a part of the team that helped make this tile wall. It was a great opportunity to meet and get to know Helen and the other tile makers, and to help create this lasting tribute to Helen.”