Savior of Art

James Erickson uses a photo of a stained glass window from Christ Memorial Church as a guide in his restoration of the damaged window

Aproverbial struggling artist in the ’70s, Oahu resident James Erickson ( eked out his creative niche, selling his pre-made stained glass windows at fairs. Forty years later, he’s proud to be among the small percentage of artists who subsist – meagerly, but consistently – solely on their art.

His recent commissioned work includes a window depicting Saint Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who both achieved sainthood for their work in Kalaupapa – Mother Marianne having just been canonized by the Catholic Church Oct. 21 in grand ceremony at the Vatican. The window, which also features a maile lei – symbolic of love, generosity and compassion – and a view of Kalaupapa, is housed at the Damien and Marianne of Molokai Heritage Center on Oahu.

In addition to commissioned residential and commercial windows, his current calling is mostly liturgical restoration and maintenance work.

“I was contacted by a church in Honolulu about 15 years ago,” says Erickson. “They said they had terrible damage to their windows, could I fix it.”

He’d been asked the same question for years and turned down projects for the sake of doing only original work. This time he decided he could use the work and certainly had the know-how. One project led to referral for another and another, and he hasn’t looked back.

“The two windows I am currently restoring are from a lovely little lava rock church in Kilauea, Kaua’i, directed by the wonderful Rev. Robin Taylor,” says Erickson. “It’s called Christ Memorial Episcopal Church, and it has stained glass windows that were made in England in 1929. Some crazy man got in there and smashed two beautiful Jesus windows.”

It’s no breezy job, requiring months of labor on a single vandalized window. The middles of both windows, which flank the church door, were badly damaged, leaving only mangled framework.

“I found pieces on the ground and in the window sill,” notes Erickson. “Some areas with lots of tiny pieces took weeks to put back together, like a forensic scientist.”

He collects any salvageable pieces and gathers what he can of the broken bits, fits them together and traces them to get the correct shape. He uses the drawings to cut new pieces from sheets of handblown glass from Germany.

Finding a hue that matches the original is a task unto itself.

Erickson assesses a damaged piece he will have to replicate. Photos by Vini Silva

Sometimes churches haven’t thought to document the windows. In one case, he did his replication based off a shot of the window in the distant background of someone’s wedding photo. Fortunately, Christ Memorial had recent, high resolution photographs of its windows.

Windows that depict faces demand the added effort of painting on the glass panels using powdered glass for the details and shadowing, and then firing the panel in a kiln, and repeating the process several times to get the detail to melt into the glass.

“In all restoration work the goal is to use as much original glass as possible. I try not to replace anything unless it’s really trashed,” says Erickson. “Unfortunately, the face on the window I’m working on now is cracked right up the middle. It’s just too damaged, so I’ll have to repaint it. It’s like a Michelangelo – the face is absolutely spectacular. I’ve looked with a magnifying glass and there’s beautiful shading in the cheeks, and the eyes and beard and hair are just gorgeous.”

When he’s done, the work is shiny and good as new, but therein lies another problem. Since the windows are from the early 20th century, Erickson has to put his work through an antiquing process, sponging it with a touch of brown glass paint and firing it up, so that the shiny center area matches the vintage surrounding areas. The lead work that holds the glass pieces together also must be aged, necessitating a patina finish to help it match the original.

The damage to Christ Memorial’s windows was done soon after Easter, and Erickson expects both windows to be ready a few weeks before Christmas.

“When these windows go back in, my dream is that anyone who didn’t see it broken will walk in, and because I’ve matched it so well, they’ll never recognize that there was any damage to it,” says Erickson. “When I put one window back in a church, a little old nun came over and burst into tears,” he recalls. “She said, ‘I love this window so much and when the vandals destroyed it I thought I’d never see it again. You’ve brought our window back to life. Thank you.'”

Some of his prestigious jobs include 10 years of incredibly complex work on Victorian windows at the Lucasfilm Ltd. Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., and his local work includes restoring windows for the Cathedral of St. Andrew that were made by Tiffany Studios of New York at the turn of the century. He’s also done work for Bishop Museum and many Hawaii churches.

“I am the luckiest guy in the world – I get to do what I love every day,” notes Erickson. “Fortunately, these islands had a lot of missionaries early on and they built a lot of churches, and they’re now really old and falling apart. I couldn’t live in Hawaii without doing restoration, so thank goodness there are so many churches I can help save.”