Stained Glass Artisans Bring Vivacity to the Valley
Scottsdale’s Powers brothers have redefined the art of stained glass.
By Marilyn Hawkes | Photography by Mark Lipczynski
In the back room of an unassuming workshop tucked into what appears on first glance to be an empty storefront in Scottsdale, Chris Powers leans over an industrial table cluttered with papers, drawing utensils, shards of brightly colored glass and small jars of vitreous paints. With an airbrush, he skillfully applies contrasting lines of dark and light hues on the opalescent fragments that will eventually be transformed into a wine cellar window.
Across the room, Chris’s brother John deftly wraps the edges of small pieces of glass with thin ribbons of copper foil, burnishing each strand to remove wrinkles and adhere it to the smooth surface. Nearby, a third brother, Tony, cuts shapes out of large sheets of glass. Almost as if by second nature, he extracts delicate curves, rounded angles and long, needlelike slivers from the brittle material. As they work, the three men banter back and forth, gently poking fun at one another, their humor belying how seriously they take their tasks.
It’s been this way ever since the trio, straight out of high school, opened up shop nearly 35 years ago after a contractor asked them to create a stained-glass window for a home. Today, the expertly crafted, intricate designs of Powers Stained Glass can be seen in churches, commercial businesses and residences across the Valley and throughout the country. “We usually have four of five projects going at once,” says Chris, who was named a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner in 2013.
Chris is the starting point for each design. He begins by sketching an outline or pattern onto a large sheet of paper and then determines which colors will bring his artistic vision to life.
He codes the drawing, akin to a paint-by-number canvas, which allows Tony to cut glass pieces in the necessary shapes and hues. Depending on the size and complexity of the design, there can be as many as 4,000 to 5,000 individual components in a single window.
To create each shape, Tony scores a larger sheet of glass by rolling a pen-shaped carbide-tipped tool dipped in oil across the glass, scratching the surface. Then, he gently taps the piece out. “We create this giant puzzle, and then we put all the pieces back together,” he explains.
John is in charge of adding foil to each fragment, a precision task that’s not without its dangers. “We have to grind the edges first because the glass is razor-sharp,” he notes, lifting his hands to display the many calluses and scars acquired over the decades.
As John assembles a transom window that will be placed above a bedroom door, Tony fires up the soldering iron. He arranges three diamond-shaped pieces of foil-wrapped glass in a pattern and then pounds nails around the formation to hold everything in place. He drips acid flux—a catalyst that allows solder to flow smoothly and bond to other metals—on the contact points and covers the copper with solder, which hisses and smokes as it hits the cold foil. After cleaning the glass and removing any excess flux, he applies a patina to the shiny solder to produce a traditional lead look. “That’s what creates the black lines in the windows,” Chris says.
Click here to watch an exclusive online video of the Powers brothers creating stained glass from scratch!
Over the years, Chris has developed innovative techniques by experimenting with the way light transmits through glass. Citing old church windows that look beautiful from the inside but black on the exterior, or details that can only be viewed when illuminated, Chris wants his work to be visible from any angle and at any time of day. “I came up with a new way of layering glass, and I design faces so you can see them at night on the front and the back of the window,” he says. Multiple sheets of glass are fused together to create textures and images that don’t require heavy lead lines, while the vitreous paints are kiln-fired into the silica, giving added depth and dimension to complex details and allowing them to be viewed from both sides unlike surface tints.
The wine cellar window Chris is currently working on involves layering various shades of purple and violet glass on top of each other, painting shadows on the grapes and scratching in highlight lines to create a photorealistic effect. The pieces are fired at 1,500 degrees.
While most of their glass comes from suppliers in California, Colorado and Texas, they sometimes work with Tiffany glass that’s manufactured in Kokomo, Indiana, using Louis Comfort Tiffany’s original formulas. Recently, Chris designed a remake of a window by the acclaimed artist for Vic & Ola’s Tavola Italiana, Sheila Bryson’s new restaurant in DC Ranch. “He took the look of church stained glass and transformed it into an Arizona sunset,” Bryson says. “It’s so unique.”
While their public works are widely viewed, Chris notes that most of their business comes from residential commissions and ranges from cabinet insets and interior doors to privacy panels and large exterior windows.
Architectural designer Clay Scrivner has collaborated with the Powers on numerous projects. The Masters of the Southwest award winner notes that he will often get an idea and make drawings for Chris to consider. “He’s very respectful of my vision, and with Chris anything is possible,” Scrivner says. “He and his brothers make quite a team.”
One current job that the Powers are particularly excited to tackle is the refurbishment of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed “Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers” window located in the lobby of The Arizona Biltmore. Comprising thousands of brightly colored geometric shapes, the iconic piece is in need of some TLC. “We have to toothbrush-clean and fix every piece,” Tony says.
Whether they’re restoring an antique work of art, fabricating a complicated 18-foot-high church window or designing a one-of-a-kind creation for a residential client, the Powers brothers agree that no matter how challenging the job, they’re always amazed when they see the final products of their collective labor. Says Chris, “We love what we do.”