BILLINGS — Stained glass is an art form that dates back twelve-hundred years and is one of the most unchanged crafts. One Billings resident is working to keep that art form alive.
Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld owns Kennedy's Stained Glass Studio (link) in Billings. She opened the studio 42 years ago.
“I felt like I was ready to move into my own studio and not have employees, kind of just do my work at my pace. A little more freedom to come and go," Kennedy Sommerfeld said on Wednesday. "A little bit more time with family and those kinds of things. It has allowed me to do that. I just felt like I was ready for that kind of freedom, although I’m very, very busy. My clients are amazing and understanding."
Her mission is simple: Creating tomorrow's antiques.
“My favorite part is designing and picking out the glass. That’s the fun part. You can think about it as if you were painting with glass. You’re really finding these gorgeous pieces that have been poured already, and finding just the right pieces in the most beautiful areas of the sheets of glass to use,” Kennedy Sommerfeld said. "What’s sort of captivating about glass, is that you think you’ve picked a piece of glass and that’s what it’s going to look like. But that’s not true, because depending on the time of the year and depending where the sun is, it will change all the time a little bit."
According to the Stained Glass Association of America, the earliest known man-made glass dates back to between 2750 and 2625 BC. Later, in the first century AD, Romans began glazing glass into windows.
Even today, artists like Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld are still carrying on the craft.
“It seems to be a little bit my generation, and the next generation’s not really, you know, bucking up and coming into this industry as much," Kennedy Sommerfeld said. "So I’m hoping that will happen because it is an art form that we really don’t want to lose."
Susan's mother, Alice Kennedy, studied the art form and spent most of her life teaching others, including Susan.
"I came to visit my mother, who when she retired from teaching, decided that she was just going to do stained glass. That’s all she wanted to do. She was absolutely entranced. So she went to Denver and she found the most beautiful work she could find, and she asked if she could study with them. So she did,” Kennedy Sommerfeld said. “I happened to come home, I don’t know, maybe it was a year or two later. She was doing an art show in Missoula. She said, ‘You come along with me, and I’ll teach you how to do this.’ So I did."
But the journey to opening her own studio has been a long one.
“I think it’s important that as an artist, people realize that you kind of have to pay your dues. So yes, I am doing what I want 42 years later. But I started by teaching classes and selling glass and doing all of those things, which may not have been where I really wanted to spend my time, but it’s sort of paying your dues," Kennedy Sommerfeld said. "And I did that for 15 years before I finally thought, ‘Ok, I’ve been here long enough, I probably can just do commission work.'"
Susan has created hundreds of pieces of art within the walls of her Billings studio that are now housed far and wide, like at St. Pius X Catholic Parish in Billings.
“Because the church is in the round, we worked off of the cycle of the day. It starts over on the East side with a dark glass. As it transports around the church it gets lighter, and then as it finishes up, it gets darker again symbolizing the cycle of the day,” said Mark Sevier, a parishioner at the church and a member of the Arts and Buildings Committee for St. Pius X, on Wednesday. “I would call that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's just plain beautiful."
Sevier said working with Susan on the project was a delight.
“Susan is a woman who is an incredibly gifted craftsperson, artist, and musician. She’s been very involved in the parish. But she takes the spirituality of her life, puts it into her work,” Sevier said. “Her spirituality comes out in everything that she does. It’s the spirit of creation and that’s what feeds her."
And Susan feels grateful for the opportunity to continue creating art.
“I think my mom really gave me a special, special gift by saying, ‘Come on, you need to learn to do this.’ I mean, I didn’t know what kind of gift that was when she invited me to go to that show with her. So I’m pretty lucky,” Kennedy Sommerfeld said. “I also feel really lucky that I get to actually practice my art on a regular basis."
Susan invites those curious to check out her Facebook page or visit her during ArtWalk this June.
“Oftentimes I just say it’s sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except you cut all of the pieces for it,” Kennedy Sommerfeld said. "I don’t think that it's necessarily hard to learn, but you need to be able to stick with it."
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