All About the Light: Adventures in Glass and Architecture



“Color is all. When color is right, form is right. Color is everything, color is vibration like music; everything is vibration.”

             – Marc Chagall



by Sybil McLain-Topel

            Light jumps in and out of the ripples of the pool. The diver ascends the platform steps, prepares for the precise plunge. Over and over, practice every day, twice a day, until muscle memory takes over and the Olympic trials he dreams about feel as real as the gritty concrete edge of the pool.

It’s the early 1970s – the Vietnam War invades every young man’s American dream and influences lifelong decisions early. For Kenn von Roenn, the ambitious Florida State University diver on the platform, an injury and a coincidence conspire to take him from the diving pool to a very different place – a stained glass studio where he works to pay surgery bills from the injury. “All this hit when I was 21 years old and everything came into focus and all the pieces fit together for the first part of my life at the beginning of my career,” Kenn says. Instead of a back-up plan to attend law school, he created a new career – fusing glass art with architecture.

“I built 44 years on that very simple foundation.”

Appointed as executive director for FSU’s Master Crafts Studio (MCS) earlier this year, Kenn von Roenn has embarked on a terrific opportunity.  Leaving his studio in Louisville, Ky., is bittersweet, but his life and business partner, Ursula Vourvoulis, encouraged him.

I like the fact that he brings his family into the conversation early. Like Kenn, I’ve been fortunate to have family support and encouragement with my decision to pursue a Creative Writing graduate degree. Like Kenn, it’s important to me that my family supports this change.

Kenn’s overarching artistic philosophy was formed during an era of political protest, a time when many people questioned the status quo, including those who felt excluded from the insider world of fine art. During the Vietnam anti-war protests, the idea surfaced that art could not be ‘owned,’ could not be ‘resold,’ and should not be a collectible commodity.

The time was right to reframe the artistic experience in terms of the individual viewer. Over the years, Kenn has made a profound commitment to increasing art in public spaces, not tucking installations away in sterile museums and private collections. Working with FSU students is a natural extension of this philosophy.

                “The most fundamental aspect of what I do is really based on the philosophy of art in built spaces, in community spaces,” Kenn says. “As artists, we do things that go far beyond our lives and touch lives for many years to come.”

 “In the art world of the 70s, art became more about the less than 5,000 people in the world who controlled the value of art. Public art is so completely different from that. Its value is determined by what it means to people and how it makes that environment more pleasant and meaningful.” 

Art has played a stronger role in my life than I realized – in just the terms Kenn describes. My father dabbled in oils and acrylics, once laboriously copying a Kandinsky he saw in the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. I inherited the painting and searched for several years for its origin, finally uncovering that “Stability” resides in a private collection in Germany. And here’s the most interesting fact that links this to Kenn’s studio – the original is painted on glass. Naturally, I wish I could see it, but it’s tucked away in someone’s home. I zealously agree with Kenn’s aspirations for more public art installations.

In fact, without realizing it, I often walked right past one of his sculptures. As I pored over his website looking at hundreds of photographs, I was surprised to find there’s one in Nashville, Tenn., in front of the Davidson County Court House. This is a place I’ve been frequently – not for traffic tickets – for business development visits and downtown music festivals on the plaza.

At any rate, I vaguely remember the work called “The Citizen” created controversy because it was “modern.” I read the description and realize for the first time the translucent pointing man can be lit up at night by passersby if they follow instructions at the sculpture’s base. A crank turn causes LED lights inside the torso to burn bright blue, like electric veins. A nod to Alan Jackson’s neon lights on Broadway a few blocks over, maybe? That’s pretty cool.

But wait – I lived in Nashville for more than 20 years and I just now find out about this? And how? By moving to Atlanta, Ga., traveling to Thomasville, Ga., then to Tallahassee, Fla., and talking to a man who lives in Louisville, Ky.

Now that I understand how to turn on those lights, trust me, next time I’m in Music City I’m planning to crank it up. The lights on the statue of course. This is exactly the type of interaction with art that’s Kenn’s goal.

“The value of public art is determined by what it means to people and how people relate to it. You should not have to wait for some authority to tell you it’s a great work of art,” he says.

In addition to joining the studio team at a nascent time, as they make plans to build a new space that will be six times larger than their current space, Kenn also directs FSU’s new public architectural art program. Both programs aim to broaden public understanding of art that works in tandem with architecture. Now that I’ve gotten a feel for the fun and whimsy he can create, I’d like to see more.

“Glass is the most phenomenal material on the face of the earth. It’s made from the most common material on earth, sand, through a very simple process of heat. By combining two or three other materials, this new material is created. It’s almost like alchemy. It’s majestic,” he says.

The installation I most want to see weighs 550,000 pounds and is part of the structure of a high rise in Charlotte, N.C., called Three Wells Fargo Center. This fascinates me because of the size and because it integrates completely with the structure.

Having worked with architects for five years, I can only imagine the meetings they had during the “design document” phase.  The emphasis on collaboration requires a leader with just the right amount of ego to guide the project forward and stay on schedule, but not the kind of “starchitect” that people in the profession complain about working with – the ones who steamroll everyone else in the room. Kenn seems to have just the right blend of confidence and leadership.

It’s easy to imagine him playing with his four grandchildren and letting them go to his studio to play.  He becomes as enthusiastic as one of them as he describes the Charlotte installation.

“It’s a glass sculpture integrated into the building. It rises 50 feet on all four sides, then drops 20 feet. The glass has a kinetic quality that changes light as the sun changes position in the sky, as the viewer moves around,” Kenn says.

“The glass sculpture is part of the fabric of the building. If you took that away, the building would be infinitely less,” he says. “It’s the world’s largest glass sculpture and it came in two months ahead of schedule and 20 percent below budget.” This is something every client wants to hear and valuable for students to learn early in their careers as artists.

The master crafts studio serves as a professional atelier where work includes sculpture, statuary, ornamental work, stained glass, cast stone, cast metals, molding processes, advanced computer technologies, and business processes.

When I first met with Sarah Coakley, the public relations director who has guided the studio for the past five years, she sported a necklace made from dark glass scallops held together with silver chains. Her mission is part business and part art and she’s just as savvy about one as she is the other. The center stone reads in bold white letters of fused glass, ‘Buy More Art.’

Sarah is self-effacing about her role in convincing Kenn to return in a leadership role to his alma mater. “We’re going to be such a presence in large-scale, local art,” she says. “Kenn is a perfect match for us.”

When Sarah leads us to FSU’s historic Dodd Hall to view modern stained glass seals honoring alumni, her enthusiasm takes over. She points to new seals recently installed in the middle of each cobalt blue stained window, explaining how they incorporate new glass art techniques.

They’re popular for commemorating special historical moments. While we’re there, she even takes a call about a future installation, which gives me a moment to ponder why cobalt blue always resonates with me. It’s the incredible Marc Chagall stained glass windows at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I’ve enjoyed on a number of trips to the city. 

Sarah and I return to her studio space.

“I took a glass workshop, three days. I could see what I was doing in painting could transfer to glass. You can use powder to paint on glass – no more leaded lines like in stained glass,” she says.

“We had an iron pour and I’m showing my friend Nancy what I’m doing in the glass workshop and she grabs my elbow, looks me in the eyes and says, ‘It’s like the mother ship has called you home at last.’” Now it’s time to put what she’s learned into action at a higher level and she’s thrilled Kenn joined the studio.

A lot has changed since Kenn von Roenn practiced dives. For one thing, the pool he remembers is gone. But he’s still dreaming big dreams. And with his track record of 44 years of completing projects across the country, it’s a safe prediction that FSU will win big in the long run.

Kenn’s been explaining his vision for the studio when I ask him to talk more about his early career. He’s just told me the diving story and there’s an instant connection for me between light reflected in the water in the pool and light shining through colored glass.

Water and glass.

“They are both transparent, but also liquid. Light passes through them and yet they also have some characteristics of being a solid,” he says. “Subconsciously maybe there was a connection. I never thought about it that way before.”

That’s the way great collaborations work. Ideas fuel one another as artists share their dreams. This time, not only will clients win, many students will get a crack at collaborating with a man who understands glass, light and how to create beautiful art that merges with architecture.

Author’s note: When I arrived to interview Sarah, I had no idea I would also interview Kenn. Having spent the last five years working with architects, the assignment pleased me. Like Kenn, I want to give back through teaching. But like Sarah, my aha moment came when someone close to me reflected back to me what I really wanted to do when I grew up. For me, that was my family – my husband, my mother and my son – they encouraged me to return to school. It’s all about the light.

©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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