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Local craftsman preserves ancient art of stained glass

Posted July 6

— The ancient art of creating and repairing stained-glass windows is alive and well in Southwest Georgia thanks to craftsman Jim Beasley, whose original designs and preservation work can be found at several of the area's historic church buildings.

Through his company, Southern Church Restorations, Beasley estimates he has restored stained-glass windows in 50 to 60 area churches.

His company was founded in 1991.

Beasley and his assistant, Jimmy Mosely, are currently working on a $37,000 preservation project at First United Methodist Church in Dawson. That job involves recoating all of the exterior stained-glass windows that have faded due to sunlight exposure and damaged by foul weather. The job has been under way since May and is expected to take about three more months.

"It takes a lot of time and tedious work to repair these older stained-glass windows," Beasley said. "I take my time to make sure the work I do will last."

The restoration work involves removing old coating from the original windows and replacing it with newer sun- and wind-resistant polycarbonate protective sheets similar to plexiglass, which are used as a protective shield to help maintain the glass and artwork in all of its original beauty.

"At this church in Dawson, the original installation had no framing, just silicone," Beasley said. "Ten years ago, I put in some siding and framework."

The arched windows are the most complicated to repair. Beasley must construct a T-bar, or a bended framing, for the arches. He must also cut the sheets of protective material into a wide assortment of sizes and shapes to properly fit the windows. The adhesive protective sheets go on somewhat like wallpaper. After allowing time for drying, the protective coating must be peeled back so that it remains clear.

"I order the sheets at 6 feet by 8 feet, and then cut everything to fit," Beasley said. "All of the sheets come in 1/4-inch thickness to withstand vandalism and storm damage. The thick sheets also help with insulation in the wintertime."

Most of the work Beasley does is on the exterior of the buildings.

"I do all kinds of repairs," he said. "I fix chips in the glass. I remove bulges. Typically, the window stays flat, but over time the elements can erode and weaken the windows, which may cause them to bulge from all of the weight and pressure.

"When we build new stained-glass windows, we construct them on large flat tables. We then brush a special stained-glass 'cement' into the lead. This cement is a combination of glazing compounds that waterproof the stained-glass window and, more importantly, gives the window its basic strength. Without the cement, the pliable lead would cause the window to bulge. When windows begin to bulge, some of the glass and solder joints crack and break. Normally, windows exposed to the elements should be recemented every 15 to 20 years. Proper installation of the protective covering will extend the length of time to recement the leaded panels as well as giving protection from storm damage and vandalism. Many churches have unknowingly neglected their leaded stained-glass windows by only painting the frames and omitting the maintenance procedure of recementing the exterior surface of the windows."

Although Beasley has done some residential and commercial work in the past, today he works exclusively on church buildings - many of which are more than 100 years old.

First United Methodist Church of Dawson, located at 306 Stonewall Street NE, was built in 1892.

Colored glass has been used for decoration since ancient times. Both the Egyptians and the Romans manufactured small colored glass objects. Stained glass gained recognition as a Christian art form some time in the 4th century as Christians began to build churches. During the late 17th century, artisans returned to Gothic-style architecture, which generated a new interest in stained glass.

According to a report published by the Stained Glass Association of America, Robert Bolton, an Englishman who once resided in Savannah, and Samuel F.B. Morse created the first-known American-made symbolic stained-glass window, the Nativity for Christ Church at Pelham, N.Y., in 1843. In the 1850s, several important stained-glass art studios were established that would survive and promote the industry.

Today, stained-glass windows can be found throughout the United States and especially in southern churches built in the 1800s.

"Stained glass has a vibrant history in the United States and in Southwest Georgia," Beasley said.

Beasley began his career in the stained-glass window industry in 1981, working as a salesperson for Wade-Co Glass Company in Blakely. In 1990, the owner moved north and left the business to Beasley.

"They left me with several restoration projects on order and already contracted with us," he said. "I had no choice, really, but to jump in and start doing it myself."

In 1992, Beasley changed the name of the company to Southern Church Restorations.

"Most of the work I was already doing was with churches, and I knew that was the direction I wanted to go," Beasley said.

Although his company restores an average of only two to five churches each year, Beasley said he is satisfied with that volume.

"I could do more, but most of these projects take several months to complete," he said.

Beasley said he spent four years working on First United Methodist Church in Albany, where the present sanctuary is a masonry construction of modified Gothic design. New stained-glass windows were installed in the church in 1966 and 1967.

"I installed windows in the sanctuary and in the chapel. I also restored all of the steel frames on the older windows," Beasley said.

Another big job for Beasley was at First Baptist Church in Cuthbert.

"What I did there is very similar to what we are doing here in Dawson," he said. "We are cleaning and peeling off the old Lexsand protective coatings, which have yellowed and faded over time, and we are replacing the perimeter window frames."

Beasley said he also moved the bell tower and constructed a new base and frame at the church.

The cost of restoration work varies. According to Beasley, the work being done at United Methodist Church in Dawson will run about $37,000. And although this type of work can sometimes be funded through a Historical Preservation grant, most of the work Beasley does is funded and paid for by the client.

"Educating our clients on how to preserve their windows is another big part of what I do," he said.

Beasley also offers original designs and installation such as the work he completed at the YMCA chapel in Albany.

Beasley said he offers two basic designs, one simple and one more complex.

"A simple design may consist of different symbols such as a cross, a church, a dove or something else, but it only has two borders," he said. "A more complex design will have scallops and three or more borders."

Beasley said he works with basic opalescent glass, which is hand-painted and kiln-fired.

Many of the older churches around Southwest Georgia feature artwork from more than one era - some from the 19th century, others from the 1940s and '50s, Beasley said. At the Methodist Church in Dawson, Beasley said he believes at least two of the interior stained-glass windows are from a much older time than the rest of the art.

The secret is in the details, he said.

"It's hard to say exactly how old each of these pieces might be, but there are ways to get a rough estimate," Beasley said. "Just look at the hands and the faces. Look at the eyes. I believe the angel in the front of the church is very old, as well as the ascending Jesus figure in the sanctuary. They could be from the 19th century. The older works are far more detailed."

Meanwhile, updating, replacing or repairing an entire piece of art is costly and complicated. According to Beasley, the cost of replacing the head of an angel or other religious symbol is about $500, and the cost of replacing hands or feet is about $300.

"This is why it is so very important for churches to protect and maintain their windows both inside and out," Beasley said.

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