Flannel Shirts: Painting pictures with glass
Stained glass artist Robert Larson has studied many different forms of art and architecture to create his own, unique style.
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Nature photography. Wood carving. Paleontology. Longtime Detroit Lakes resident Robert Larson has pursued a variety of hobbies in his life.
But it is his stained glass art for which he is perhaps best known: Three of his stained glass windows grace one of the walls of the chapel at Ecumen Detroit Lakes, while many more of his works can be found in area homes and churches, as well as the Pickerel Lake home he shares with his wife, Ann Newgard-Larson, the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes.
The Ecumen windows are each ensconced in side-by-side wooden boxes that can be lit from within, giving them the appearance of being lit by the sun.
“The windows were commissioned by (former Ecumen chaplain) Vicki Marthaler,” Larson said. “She chose the theme of ‘faith, hope and love,’” he added, noting that he chose to design something that “wasn’t overtly religious,” due to the chapel being ecumenical in nature, rather than a place of worship for a singular faith.
He chose nature scenes to embody each of the three themes, creating three 2x5-foot windows that were designed to hang side-by-side in the chapel, as a single work of art.
He has also done windows for Bakke Lutheran Church, in rural Detroit Lakes, and the home of Fargo artist Ellen Diederich, to name just a few.
In addition, he has donated stained glass art to the Toast to Tamarac silent auction for many years.
“It’s for a great cause,” Larson said, noting that the proceeds from the Toast to Tamarac go to support the environmental education programs at the wildlife refuge, where he has been a frequent visitor over the years.
In fact, art prints of several of Larson’s nature photos – all taken at Tamarac – can be found for sale at the Friends of Tamarac Nature Store inside the refuge’s Visitor Center, and he has taken some of his photographs and printed them out on note cards, which he donates to be sold at the Visitor Center as well.
Many of Larson’s stained glass works — particularly those that he has donated for the Friends’ fundraising auction — were also inspired by photos he has taken out at the Refuge over the years.
Currently, he is working on a commissioned piece, the pattern lying on his work table just waiting for him to match it with carefully cut pieces of glass that are selected according to the color of the objects they represent (various shades of green glass for grass and foliage, blue for sky, etc.).
Glass art first came to Larson’s attention through his love of antiques, he added.
“I’d been collecting sectional bookcases with leaded windows,” Larson said, “and I wanted to build windows like those, so I took a class in Fargo.
“It’s not a quick learning process,” he said. “There are a lot of steps.”
He was so good at it that the studio where he took those classes, Lightbenders, eventually ended up hiring him as an instructor.
“I taught stained glass art at Lightbenders for many years,” he said.
There have been a few exhibits of his work in the area over the years: In the summer of 2010, some of his stained glass art was featured in an exhibit at Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes. In a story about the exhibit that appeared in the Detroit Lakes Tribune, he talked about his educational background in architecture, industrial illustration, graphic design and art, with an emphasis in art history and photography.
He said he studied art history for a summer in Europe, where he visited a number of Gothic cathedrals. “I was impressed with the stained glass windows, which played a large part in establishing the character of these churches,” he added.
Also, during several visits to New York City, Larson viewed the stained glass windows of legendary artist Louis Comfort Tiffany in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a collection of stained-glass Tiffany lamps at the New York Historical Society.
“Tiffany created glass to reflect the color and tonal variations found in nature,” he said. “In a way, he was able to paint pictures using glass.”
Larson’s own work is strongly influenced by Tiffany, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Prairie School of Architecture designed windows, in direct contrast to the era of Tiffany, were based on nature but used strong geometric elements and solid earth-tone colors. Some of those geometric designs can be found in the windows of Larson’s own home, which he designed himself.
“I combine the interplay of lights and darks of multicolored glass of Tiffany with the illustrative details of Wright to create lifelike images in a more patterned environment,” is how he once described a series of windows he had done, featuring irises, tulips and sunflowers.
Larson also has several Tiffany-style lamps in his home, which he created himself. Unlike windows or other flat pieces, the Tiffany-style lamps must be fashioned using PVC forms to hold the glass in place, he explained, because they are created to be three-dimensional, rather than to lay or hang on a flat surface. He also uses copper foil to wrap around the individual pieces, rather than lead, and adds a copper-like patina to the sauter that adheres the pieces together.
Larson has also dabbled in many other interests over the years, as can be seen in some of the artifacts decorating his home: In one corner, there are some artifacts that reflect the 15-plus years he spent as an amateur paleontologist at Concordia College in Moorhead, frequently going on digs with his fellow students.
In a 2013 Tribune story about his work in paleontology, Larson said he had an early interest in dinosaurs, but didn’t pursue it until much later, when his wife handed him a brochure about a course in paleontology at Concordia. After taking the five-week course, he stayed on at the college.
“Obviously I was a much older than average student, but I became a colleague,” Larson said.
He took the initial class with the intention of going on a dinosaur dig, which he eventually got to experience multiple times, at locations ranging from Lemmon, S.D., to Shell, Wyo., and Jordan, Mont. “I fell in love with the whole process,” he said.
It’s just one of many such loves that Larson has experienced over the years, and he expects to find many more: “I’m just a very curious artist, and there are many different aspects of art.”