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Artisans of Michigan: Stained glass art

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Dirk Thompson, Sr. watches as his son reconstructs a window from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The window was broken by an errant soccer ball.

The Thompson family has been constructing stained glass and leaded glass windows in Michigan since 1929.

“You know, we’re not interested in making sun catchers or little things that we sell at craft fairs. That’s just not our business. Our business is stuff that’s much longer lasting than that,” explained Dirk Thompson.

The family's stained glass windows have been installed in churches, colleges, businesses, and high-end homes. Thompson Art Glass also does a lot of restoration work.

They day I visited his son, Dirk Thompson, Jr., was piecing together a leaded glass window for Cranbrook Academy of Art.

It seems there was a stray soccer ball at the school.

The younger Thompson held a piece of glass and began to scribe an arc freehand.  

The Thompsons work all over Michigan, parts of Ohio and Canada. Work is steady, but over the last couple of decades a major source of business has slowed.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

“But, demand for church windows, there hasn’t been as many church windows built in the last 20 years, so the demand is down.”

Not a lot of new churches, but there are some additions to churches and so stained glass windows are still in demand, albeit at a slower rate.

Thompson says there has been growth in other areas:  homes.  And in Michigan a lot of those stained glass scenes are not necessarily biblical. They're often hunting scenes.

"We get a lot of wildlife requests. We get a lot of requests for flowers and for foliage scenes, grapes and leaves, and again more wildlife," the elder Thompson said.

On the walls there are sketches of completed jobs. Included were designs of moose, an otter, deer, hunting dogs, wolves, cardinals, and more.

“Yeah. [Customers] bring us their ideas. If they have any photos, they bring those along. And then we do composite drawings and develop the concept,” Thompson explained.

It’s no accident that Dirk Thompson, Sr. continued the family business. It was encouraged. Planned.

“When I was a kid, our grandfather sent four grandsons that seemed to be inclined. In grade school, he sent us to art class every summer. In high school, he sent us to art class at Cranbrook Academy. To be honest with you, I worked here at the shop on Saturdays with my dad since about seventh grade. I had no question what I was going to do because I just absolutely loved the art work,” Thompson said.

Dirk Thompson, Jr. is the fourth generation of the family to get into the business. Dirk Senior says he’s glad the family craft, art, and business is still going strong. 

“I’m just thrilled as can be. I’ve got –currently got three young grandsons and I hope they’re going to be the fifth generation. But, again, that has yet to be seen,” he said, smiling.

Watch them restore a glass window panel below:

Both of the Thompsons say they can’t imagine doing anything else. Seeing a concept come to reality is rewarding in itself.

The senior Thompson recalls a particularly rewarding job: three walls of stained glass at St. Mary’s in Pinckney. The job led the Bishop to pull Dirk Thompson aside.

“He told me personally, he said, ‘You know, this was a beautiful building, but now that it’s got the stained glass in it, it’s a place of God.’ And, I mean, that’s worth any amount of money in the world, to get a compliment like that.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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