By Debbie Carlson Chicago Tribune.
Emily Carlson had been teaching English in Taiwan for six years when another American brusquely asked her what she was doing with her life.
"He stared at me and started to ask the questions you don't politely ask a friend," Carlson recalled. "I had a doe-in-the-headlights look, but I didn't break that gaze until I decided to give him an answer. I was just being honest with myself."
Her answer, it turned out, helped her realize that she wanted to work in the arts. Carlson (no relation to the writer) says she had always loved drawing and working with her hands as a child, but had abandoned artistic aspirations in high school because she didn't think she was good enough. (She graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in Chinese.)
In 1991, she started representing American and Taiwanese artists.
"I thought, if I can't (be an artist), maybe I can act as an art representative for other artists," she said. "I was going back and forth, spending most of my time in Taiwan."
By 1999, though, after Carlson had settled back in the U.S., she discovered the world of stained glass and found the artistic outlet she was looking for. That passion eventually turned into her own business, launched in 2008.
Today, her firm, Solstice Art Source (it's also known as Solstice Stained Glass) in Chicago's Kinzie Industrial Corridor, custom designs, restores, repairs and installs stained and leaded architectural glass. Her work can be seen in private homes, commercial spaces and religious buildings in Chicago and other areas of the U.S. The firm assisted in restoring stained glass at the Yale University Art Gallery, collaborated on an art installation at a north suburban synagogue and just recently finished working on the 120-plus windows for the Saieh Hall for Economics at the University of Chicago.
A Chicago native, Carlson, 48, came up with the name Solstice while in Taipei.
"The concept behind it is that if you're going to do anything, do it to the extreme," she said. "Fully, completely, passionately."
Following is an edited transcript of a conversation with Carlson.
Q: What sparked your interest in stained glass?
A: I stumbled into stained glass. There was a professional studio (Harmony Art Glass in Chicago) near my condo, and I liked the idea of stained glass as part of the architecture. That function is what really made it interesting for me. We create weather-bearing windows, but they are decorative in the meantime. I've learned to engineer windows to last for 75 or 100 years. And working with power tools is always fun. I love the artwork side, but to take it beyond that, to make it useful and functional, was the big appeal.
Q: Where did you study?
A: I was taught by the gentleman who owned (Harmony), and I had my skills greatly enhanced by my mentor, Bill Klopsch, who is up in (suburban) Skokie. I got the basic training on how to do a layout, how to cut glass, how to lead glass together, soldering and weatherproofing a window.
Q: How did you start your business?
A: Networking. I'm involved with three separate networking groups. Through one networking group I (was hired by) Mayne Stage (a bar and concert venue in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood). That was a big steppingstone for me. Everyone you talk to may either go to church or synagogue or have a house. You never know how word gets around. I also started by looking for collaborators and partners. Now a lot of it is word-of-mouth, based on reputation. It's important that every piece of glass that goes out the door is top-notch quality. People refer people and it comes back that way.
Q: Old windows are still viable, aren't they?
A: People simply don't know that they can be restored. The old windows have a thinner profile so they let more light in. They typically have storm windows. Studies have proven the thermal equality with the old systems versus the modern thermal glass replacement. They were built visually to complete the architecture of the house. Sometimes they just need a little bit of work. If you do decide to get rid of the windows, you don't have to get rid of the glass. It can be repurposed. I prefer to use vintage glass for glass repairs. It's a rare commodity that's becoming more rare. If you get rid of the windows, please don't let the glass go to the landfill.
Q: How did you manage a project as big as the University of Chicago's windows?
A: I bring people in on projects. Scalability is very important. I have three full-time people on staff including me. For the U. of C. project, at one point I had nine people on the payroll. It was a very cool project.
Q: What advice do you have for people who want to make a career in the arts?
A: Everyone hears follow your passion. Sticking with it is the hard part. Especially when you come up against obstacles, like financial difficulties. I'm stubborn. I'm a Taurus and was born in the Year of the Horse, so this is stubbornness with blinders on. You've got to be stubborn, but be realistic. Talking about it is great, but you have to put pen to paper and crunch the numbers and do the research. If you don't have the business wherewithal, talk to people who do. Have a good lawyer, have a good accountant, have a good insurance agent. Also, have the self-respect to charge what your time is worth. I think the beauty of art enhances life. Artwork enhances for everybody.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: After Labor Day I got my first motorcycle since Taiwan. That was very fun. In about a month I put on a thousand miles. Went up to Michigan, got some apples. Another time I was able to make it to the opera, valet park and made curtain call by 1 minute. I have a Honda Shadow 600. It's a baby; I've definitely outgrown it. Bringing the apples back for my first-ever night ride on the Chicago Skyway was intense. I think if it was a little bigger engine it would have been different. But I'll get there.
In March, Solstice Art Source will host the second annual Chicago Stained Glass Invitational exhibition, where artists will show their new work in a juried show and, Carlson says, expand awareness of stained glass. Information on the exhibit will be posted in the coming weeks at her company's website, www.solsticeartsource.com . ___