In his office, David Judson reads from a ledger that was once owned by his great-great-grandfather William Lees Judson: “This is dated July of 1876 and he’s got an entry here that says, 'The English Church, leading 21 lights,' which would have been windows. Small windows."
The price of a stained glass window has certainly changed since the 1800s — that small window cost a mere $2.10 in 1876, according to Judson's ledger — but the family has not. David Judson is the fifth-generation owner of the Judson Studios, which has made stained glass by hand in Los Angeles for more than a century.
William Lees Judson became a key figure in California’s Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century. In 1920, he moved his studio to Highland Park from downtown Los Angeles. The studio is headquartered in the same building overlooking the Arroyo that once housed the USC School of Fine Arts.
“The building which was the school is basically our workshops now,” David Judson says. “Different things happen in different rooms based on the production of the stained glass and things haven’t really changed since we moved in in 1920.”
Every stop in the labyrinthine Judson Studios presents a new gift for the eyes. The glass room, as Judson calls it, is bathed in red, green and blue light: “We have about 600 different colors of glass that we keep in stock. We categorize it by color and put it up in the windows for natural light."
Tables that are backlit allow the light to shine through the glass as artisans work. Computers help with the designs, too. But not all of the tools are so modern. Artisan Robert Youngman uses the same kind of lead knife that was used in stained glass making back in the 12th century. “All of my tools are archaic except for the soldering iron and these lead dykes,” he says.
Many of Judson’s clients are churches. But today, craftsman Alex Cordova is assembling a window featuring a mouse from “Cinderella” for a Walt Disney park in Florida. In one room, craftsmen are restoring hundreds of panels that have been shipped to L.A. from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. In another, they’re preserving a window from one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Los Angeles. Judson Studios has also made stained glass for Wright’s Hollyhock House in Hollywood and has poached stained glass artisans from Louis Comfort Tiffany.
In the studio basement, Judson and his team are also giving the old art of stained glass an update by using a technique called fusing. “We’re combining the traditional glass painting with a more contemporary use of the glass where we can combine multiple colors of glass in layers and then put it in a kiln to actually become one piece. In essence, we’re painting with glass as opposed to just painting with paint,” he says.
Studio artist Tim Carey likes fusing because it involves lots of color: "Instead of using dark black paint, we’re using blues and reds and greens all within the composition — sort of like an impressionist painting in glass.”
Blues fade into pinks and greens into reds here, making for a spectacular display and range. Judson is currently at work on a new window for the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, a project for which his studio beat out 60 other bidders from around the world. When finished, the piece will be 100 feet wide and 40 feet high, and one of the biggest stained glass windows in the world. All of them made with the fusing technique. “If the window ends up being really good and if it ends up really reaching and inspiring people, it can kind of launch us into different areas,” says Carey.
On a balcony overlooking the Arroyo, David Judson talks about why stained glass is such a captivating art form and why he’s hoping to push it even further.
What you’re dealing with is light, this aspect of light that we’re constantly experiencing throughout the day. When you can harness the light and create a setting with colored light, not only are you viewing a window but it casts color through a room. It’s changing throughout the day... it allows you to kind of just observe and enjoy without all of these technological things we deal with on a day-to-day basis.