Old-world apprentice, Memphis style

Terry Rogers, 17, earned a reputation at the Carpenter Art Garden in Binghampton as a kid who could paint. Before he knew it, he was on the mural team, making $10 an hour creating bold, colorful street art there and around the city, including an installation at Tillman and Summer.

Now, if he has to pinch himself to know what is happening is real, stained-glass artist Suzy Hendrix just smiles to herself. She needed an apprentice. Church of the Holy Communion asked to help by paying him a living wage. In a few weeks, Terry’s work, his first in stained glass, will be installed in the church’s new children’s chapel, a testament to the power of reaching out and relationships in the world of possibility he’s getting to know.

“This is something new to me. I really want to do it,” Terry says, pausing from the grimy panes of glass he’s cleaning with a toothbrush, cloth and a puddle of an industrial-grade non-ammonia detergent in Hendrix’s Sassafras Art studio, off Tutwiler and Montgomery. They are doing the project on contract with Rainbow Studio, the largest stained-glass window studio in Memphis.  

Hendrix’s plan over time is to give Terry enough technical skill and coaching to make him an up-and-coming stained-glass restoration expert in a city that has only a handful.

“And they’re all 60 or older,” she says with a laugh.

“You’ll be the only guy in town doing this work under 60,” she says over one of the church’s 32-by-82 stained glass windows, which, except for the windows he’s seen on his own, forms his understanding of stained glass.

Holy Communion received a Church Home grant from the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee to cover restoration and installation of two windows dating from the 1890s that hung in the former Otey Chapel at 3246 East Raines Road. The windows have been in storage since the early 2000s. Their provenance is unclear, although the Reverend Chip Davis says they came from Episcopal churches in Tennessee.

When the Reverend Sandy Webb heard about them, he wrote a proposal to the Church Home board for a grant to have the windows restored and incorporated into the new children’s wing.

“It was Sandy’s suggestion that we pay an apprentice a living wage,” Hendrix said. “I thought it was a great idea.”

A living wage in Memphis is at least $15 an hour, which means that in the space of a few weeks, Terry’s earning power increased by 50 percent. The fact that settles over him like a warm blanket.

“I love it,” he said. “I want to buy a car with what I’m making.”

Terry’s training includes learning restorative techniques and the soldering that comes with them, plus cutting glass and building windows.

Thin glass is cut with a diamond-wheel knife; wet saws are used for thick pieces, he says.

“You want to push the same way all the way across,” Terry says, showing visitors his knife skills. “You want to hear that sound of the glass breaking,” he says over the barely perceptible pitch. “That’s how you know you have it right.”

Since the Middle Ages, stained glass artisans have learned the craft through apprenticeships, says Dr. Charles Moore, a Memphian who taught college-level medieval literature for decades and in his spare time, cataloged significant stained-glass windows as an affiliate of the Census of Stained Glass Windows in America.

“The intent was to catalog all the historical stained glass from Colonial times to the present as a preservation effort,” he said. “That’s how I got interested in local glass in Memphis.”

He remembers the Bishop Otey windows, a “textbook collection of 19th Century” church windows, from closed churches around the state.

“They were stunning and from the outstanding workshops in New York, London, Innsbruck (Austria) and Tiffany.”

Terry grew up in Binghampton and attended Lester School, once the pride of a corner of Memphis bounded by on the north by the CSX railroad and to the south by Poplar. The neighborhood, which began as a small town outside Memphis, runs east to west from Holmes to East Parkway North.

Dozens of groups have rolled up their sleeves and poured in investment, hoping to save a corner with still-decent housing stock from decay.

Erin Harris, founder/director of the art garden at 295 Carpenter is one of them. In 2012, she started the project to give children who didn’t have art instruction at Lester School ways to fuel their creativity.

She added after-school tutoring, gardening and bike-repair, and watched one blighted lot and then another turn into an outdoor classroom that attracted dozens of children and teens.

A year later, Terry Rogers, then 11, was one of them.

Soon he was one of the 25 neighborhood youth hired to work in the garden. 

“He’s quiet, but he’s a great leader,” Harris said. “And he wants to be an art teacher, which I love.

“He helps with our small-group art instruction, he tutors after school, and he’s an art buddy,” Harris said. “We take younger students who show talent in art and pair them with an older peer. We think Terry will be a good influence on Willie, his mentee.”

The art garden turned out to be bigger than the neighborhood it serves because it also attracts outsiders interested in the magic.

Hendrix works there as an artist in residence. It didn’t take much to see that her studio helper might be someone already excelling in creating its garden mosaics and murals.

The cross-pollination thrills Harris.

“Our goal is to help the children find opportunities through art. In this case, it was a chance for Terry to meet Suzy and have this opportunity, which opens this whole realm of possibility.”

Terry will work about 35 hours on the church’s job, a painstaking process of cleaning, injecting filler around broken glass and, with a dentist’s pick, gently removing putty from a previous, less-tidy restoration.

By mid-March, the details in the cleaned glass were by far sharper and luminescent than when the windows were taken out of storage crates last fall.

Terry beamed at the changes.

“She wanted me to learn some new things,” he said. “It feels good.”

The Holy Communion congregation will get to meet Hendrix and Terry on Sunday, May 12, when they talk about the work on the stained-glass windows in the Adult Forum.


Posted by Jane Roberts at 11:35 AM
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