Stained glass artist, Risa Dera is based in New Jersey, USA. She talked to us about her work, her journey with art, and her experience of taking a Master of Fine Arts degree with Warnborough College, which she completed in February 2016.
Listen to the audio or read transcript below it!
Have you always been interested in art?
Yes, always. I’ve never thought about doing anything else.
If you think back to when you were a child, were you engaged in artistic activities then?
Always. When other kids did sports, I always took art lessons.
What kind of art has inspired you in the past?
My all-time favourite artist is Andrew Wyeth, who is from close to where I live in Cherry Hill. He’s from Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes away, and I was lucky enough to speak to him when I was young. He just opened up everything about art to me. He just made everything seem worthwhile. He’s a painter – a very well-known American painter. I don’t know if you’re familiar, one of his most famous paintings is named Christina’s World.
Has your art changed though time as you’ve developed?
My art has absolutely evolved as time has gone on, but I think a lot of that has to do with experience too.
So, you’re a stained glass artist? That’s quite an old art form.
Correct… it is a very old art form. Not many people take it to the same level that I do. Some people do it as hobbyists. I do a lot of old church repairs, church windows.
There are actually two methods to stained glass. There’s lead caning, which is the old, traditional way to do it and then there is something called the Tiffany method, which was made popular by Louis (Comfort) Tiffany in the early part of the century. I work in both methods. For old window repairs, I always use the old caning method.
I imagine there are quite a lot of considerations that you have to make when you’re creating a piece of art for stained glass. Is it kind of like design and engineering both at the same time?
It is because glass has certain innate properties that you have to learn to live with, or you can’t use the piece of glass you want to use. Light refraction is a really big consideration when you’re working with glass. You have to make sure all your colours go together but you also have to anticipate when the sun hits it, how one colour might change and make it not appealing with another colour.
Do you have to use different chemicals to get those colours?
Oh absolutely. They’re all made with different minerals.
So if you were going to make green, for example, what kind of minerals would you use?
You’d use a copper and some sulphates. Some colours are made with gold dust, which makes them extremely expensive. One of those happens to be pink… and also what affects the glass is whether it’s machine rolled or hand rolled and the colours that you put together, because the minerals you put in to colour it actually create different hardness in the glass. So, mixing white and green would be a very difficult combination to cut, because it doesn’t meld together well. It’s beautiful glass but it make just be very difficult to work with.
Have you come over to Europe and seen some of the old medieval stained glass windows?
Yes, actually, I used to live in Israel. I’ve seen the Chagal windows, I’ve been to the Vatican and been through all the beautiful churches in Europe.
Chagal was one of the people to use stained glass in an abstract way, wasn’t he?
Yes, and he also modernised it in my opinion, more than Tiffany did. He made it more appealing to the general public.
Does the USA have its own unique stained glass style?
It’s similar. The only thing I think you could say is Tiffany created the Tiffany method. So you could say the Tiffany method of glass was started here.
Did you do an MBA?
I did my MFA.
MFA, sorry of course, MBA’s a completely different thing! I just want to get an idea of why you decided to do an MFA.
It was all for my personal satisfaction. Also, I don’t know how things work over there but here in New Jersey, you can’t teach kindergarten through twelfth grade without a teaching certificate. If you want to teach college level, you don’t need a teaching certification but I do need a masters. I do a lot of work with kids, but I’m more interested in teaching on the adult college level.
When you were doing your MFA, it was a distance learning course. How did you find doing it like that?
You know, it was perfect for me. Jill Kiefer was my mentor. We got along beautifully. She absolutely knew her subject matter, which was a big help to me. She was also familiar with working with glass, which was a big help to me in the whole design aspect.
How do you feel now, having done it?
Between you and me, if I didn’t have three children in college right now, I would’ve gone for the doctorate.
What did you get from doing the MFA that was valuable for you as a practitioner?
Like I said, it allows me to teach at a higher level but the majority reason for doing it was for the self satisfaction.
Have you had exhibitions of your work?
I do – I show a lot. I do the whole craft show scene, depending on what scene it is but I do show. I’m very active in the local arts centre here. I coordinate a lot of exhibits and I exhibit a lot.
Do you have a studio? I mean, I imagine you don’t do this in your bedroom!
I have several studios – a very large, beautiful studio in my house and I have studios at two arts centres that I work at, that are all totally equipped.
Where do you get your materials from?
Materials are getting harder and harder to find because companies are not producing glass – there really is not a big market for it. Two years ago I bought out the inventory of a stained glass store. The man who’d owned it had died and the son just wanted to get rid of everything. I could open a stained glass store, with the amount of glass I have in the house, although I have to tell you – I never have the piece that I need! I do always have to go out and buy it.
There are still a few companies around that you can get it at, but I do go directly to the manufacturer.
So looking to the future, do you have any plans or ambitions?
I really would, once my kids are done, like to go back and do my doctorate. I would love to do it with Dr Jill Kiefer too. She was just wonderful.
Thank you for your time today.
Oh it’s my pleasure!
If you would like to see more of Risa’s work or buy some of her beautiful stained glass, visit her online shop here.
Take a look at the Warnborough College MFA program that Risa did:
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