With design and work in three Trenton churches and a studio in Bucks County, stained glass artist and fabricator Don Hector is following a tradition set up in the region in the early 20th century.
That was when noted Bucks County artist and stained glass maker George Sotter opened his studio and attracted or trained glass makers Edward Byrne and Valentine d’Ogries.
Sotter moved to the region in part to work with Princeton University architect Ralph Cram, a proponent of the Neo-Gothic approach where stained glass would let bands of brilliant light pierce the atmosphere and stimulate the imagination or soul.
And while the three worked nationally, they also had an effect on Trenton. Sooter created stained glass for the New Jersey State House Annex. d’Ogries created the glass for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and Byrne provided the colorful windows for St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Even though Hector, 67, only met and talked to Edward Byrne Jr, who worked with his father on St. Mary’s, Hector was actually picking up the pieces of a shattered Trenton stained glass tradition.
“I met (Edward Byrne Jr.) when they were selling off his assets,” says Hector in his Upper Black Eddy home that houses his studio.
That was in the early 1980s, and despite some occasional work, the stained glass industry started falling on tough times.
“There isn’t much money in it,” says Hector, who has created glass designs for restaurants and private homes. “And getting glass isn’t easy.”
He says the problems are related to fewer churches being built and national Environmental Protection Act regulations involving stained glass manufacturing.
The latter involves the use of metals that cause cancer and the need to build taller smokestacks.
“A lot of (glass providers) were really old and weren’t making too much in the first place. So they just stopped,” he says.
The result is less available quality glass, higher prices, and churches struggling to keep open and service their communities.
Hector says that when he started in the business, there were 10 major suppliers. Now there are two.
“Stained glass is really on hard times,” says Hector. “Even if I get a commission I have to rely on my 40 years of stock. It’s hard to get stuff.”
Looking back, Hector says, “One of my first jobs was removing glass in Trenton.”
The city is also where he lived and worked before turning to stained glass design.
Hector was raised in Oradell, New Jersey. His father was vice president of Prentice Hall Publishing and his mother stayed at home.
After studying English at Rutgers and planning to teach, he changed his direction and ended up working for the State of New Jersey Department of Insurance.
Playing music on the side, Hector — then married and with a house in East Amwell — came in contact with Bucks County musician, sculptor, and engraver Charles Ellis.
“When I saw his work I was blown away, and I said to myself, ‘Let me see if I could be an artist,’” says Hector.
He left the state job around 1980, sold the house in East Amwell, and moved to Tyler Street in Trenton to keep his expenses low.
While living in Trenton, he began to learn to draw and took informal lessons from an associate who convinced him to “get his feet wet” by entering competitions.
After getting honorable mention in the annual Phillips Mill juried art show, he says he was encouraged and ready to take the next step to make a living as an artist.
His medium of choice was stained glass. “At the time you could make money at arts crafts fairs,” he says. “There was also Jinx Harris Productions. She’d have artists for malls. After about a year of doing that, I was in Flemington and people were opening a restaurant, and asked if I could do their glass. I said, ‘Of course I could,’ but I hadn’t done a large-scale work. They gave me my first big commission to do the inside of the restaurant.”
“I taught myself everything,” he says. “I had to teach myself how to carve and paint glass. No one was teaching (stained glass). You could pick things up, but there weren’t any old guys taking apprentices. It was really hard to get guidance.”
Hector credits word of mouth references for his 39 years of business.
Some of his early work involved restoring Trenton churches, but he stopped because of health concerns related to chipping and breathing in powder from lead-based putty. “I got a lead test and it spiked, and I said I wasn’t going to do it,” he says.
While early clients included Trenton’s Diamond’s Kent Cafe and other restaurants, later ones included Catholic churches, synagogues, the Lawrenceville School, and Princeton University.
About his artistic approach, Hector says, “I try to master every period. I do traditional saints. I do very traditional portraits, yet I do abstract. That’s the way it is. You look for juxtapositions that are interesting. To work in one particular style is boring.”
Although he says he emulates no particular stained-glass artist or painter, he readily mentions fin-de-siecle Irish stained glass maker Harry Clarke. “What he did with glass no one else did.”
Hector says his current business includes “an English Folly” for Helen Chaitman, the Frenchtown-based lawyer who is suing Bernie Madoff. “We’re doing a Greek temple, and all around the exterior we’re doing the stained glass.” “We” includes his partner, muralist Joann Mazzeo.
He also created 12 windows for a Jewish congregation in New Hope, one of which remembers the late Trenton boaster Caren Franzini, former head of the New Jersey Economic Development Association and a catalyst for the creation of the development corporation Greater Trenton.
And he is working with English architect Sarah Susanka. “The book she’s famous for is “The Not So Big House” — a modernist style with efficient use of space. I’m working on a stained glass mosaic of Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ for a pool area. And I still do commissions for private homes,” he says.
Then, he says, there are a lot of things he makes for himself and then sells. That mainly means a series of rosettes — round glass pieces, ranging in price from $2,000 to $3,000. Other works can reach into the five figures.
While Hector is now in the process of transitioning like the stained glass makers before him, he actually has seeded the Trenton-Bucks County connection to another generation.
In Trenton he became friends with a couple who had a son, Zach Green, who became interested in art and stained glass and now owns and operates Princeton Stained Glass in Jersey City.
In addition to taking class with taking classes with contemporary New Jersey stained glass maker J. Kenneth Leap, Green also received guidance from Hector, who gave him a box of Tiffany glass.
“He’s done some Irish bars in New York City,” says Hector who sums everything up by saying, “If you get into an art form, you have to know it all.”
Don Hector/Art Glass, 1345 Mahlon Mills Lane, Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania. www.donhectorstainedglass.com