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No Pane, No Gain

You won't find the work of glass artist Jackson Hall in any South Florida gallery or museum -- not yet, anyway. A recent transplant from San Francisco, Hall has spent the past two months getting settled in Fort Lauderdale, where he has a small studio in his house in the Rio Vista neighborhood south of the New River. His home also serves as a showcase for his art.

After working as a breast cancer researcher at the University of California at San Francisco for nearly 20 years, Hall decided to trade earthquakes for hurricanes and moved to Florida. Early retirement enabled him to devote himself to his art full-time, and he says he ended up in South Florida for three reasons: "I wanted a place that was less expensive than San Francisco, a place that was warmer, and a place that was gay-friendly." Fort Lauderdale satisfied all three conditions.

Hall, who just turned 50, started working with glass in 1981, not because of a background in painting or drawing, and not because of any special affinity for religious art, with which stained glass is most often associated. He was simply curious.

"I was intrigued by the medium, and I liked working with my hands," he says, adding that medical research didn't fully satisfy him. Then he stumbled onto an opportunity to refine his art the old-fashioned way, by working with a European master. Hall spent three years as an apprentice to Narcissus Quagliata, an Italian artist now living and working in Mexico.

During his rigorous apprenticeship, Hall helped execute the designs of Quagliata, who at the time specialized in stained-glass portraiture. Hall also got to work on his own pieces, and there were give-and-take critique sessions with Quagliata and the studio's other apprentices (up to six at any given time). All for no pay.

"I spent a year working on that piece," Hall says, pointing to a catalog reproduction of his final project for Quagliata. "Then Narcissus sold it," he adds, a little ruefully.

Hall's glass portraits resemble those of his mentor, who specialized in realistic likenesses, but they also display the more abstract style he was developing at the time. Blue Portrait, from 1991, is a good example of a melding of the two styles. Based on a photograph of the notorious Tallulah Bankhead, it suggests the actress' features -- the arched eyebrows, the overripe lips, the world-weary head propped against an upraised hand -- with a few clean lines of lead on a pane of glass stained with a range of rose-colored hues. Thick, angled lines of lead overlap the face, emphasizing Bankhead's essentially harsh demeanor and personality, while a small triangle of blue serves to justify the picture's title.

For some of his landscapes, Hall takes his cue from the American painter Lyonel Feininger and his distinctive take on cubism, which makes use of jagged, angular shapes and gradations of color. Hall's business card features a reproduction of one of his Feininger-inspired abstracts, a gorgeous jumble of orange, red, yellow, and blue triangles and other shapes that summon up a marine landscape. (The business card also includes a postage stamp-size copy of the Bankhead image.)

Feininger's influence, as well as that of his contemporary Paul Klee, is also evident in what Hall calls his "cutouts." These collagelike constructions of paint and paper were interim projects he worked on during the early '90s, when he was so overwhelmed by the impact of AIDS on his beloved San Francisco that he abandoned glass for a few years. Some of the cutouts are scattered through the house.

One cutout, on a wall in the studio, is an exquisitely simple composition that seems to be awaiting translation into glass (although Hall says he has no plans to do so). The piece includes a small, red, human silhouette in the lower left corner and a yellow triangle that suggests a sailboat on the right, all on a field of pale aqua, set off by strips of soft pink and brown. The palm trees that appear in several of Hall's other pieces are absent, but there's a distinctly South Florida feel to the image.

Before the move to Florida, Hall had executed a handful of especially ambitious pieces that feature multiple panels of stained, leaded glass, framed on interlocking pieces of black lacquered wood to create miniature narratives. These large-scale constructions -- up to six feet wide -- consist of two to five panels, each a different size and shape, rather than the symmetrical squares and rectangles of traditional diptychs and triptychs.

Most of the pieces -- including the excellent Alex Steps Out, of which Hall has photo reproductions -- have been sold. But one is still in the studio. Like the others, it's a sort of snapshot in glass of a San Francisco scene. Entitled Lydia Sits With Her Friends, it includes a cityscape on its large left-hand panel, rendered in vivid reds, blues, and violets and tilted at an angle to convey the city's hilly terrain. On the right-hand panel are the women alluded to in the title.

Hall stopped making the multipanel pieces because, he says, "People couldn't figure out where to put them." With any luck he'll resume making the large panels, which are his strongest works. But he may have hit on a suitable compromise with another approach, in which he attaches several small panes of glass side by side with lead. The panes, again, are irregular in shape and vary in size. One such piece, hanging in an arch between Hall's kitchen and his studio, includes four seemingly unrelated panels: one featuring a human silhouette, another a large set of lips, the third a palm tree, and the fourth a sunburst.

An even more striking construction, hanging in the front window of the living room, consists of two discrete elements. The bottom piece is another series of four small, irregularly shaped panels: a brightly colored cityscape, a purple panel, a seascape with sailboat, and a white panel with a tiny silhouette. This piece was the last Hall completed before his self-imposed hiatus from glass.

The top piece is the first work Hall executed when he returned to working with glass, in 1996. It's a more straightforward single panel with an intricately detailed vase of flowers in the center, surrounded by a few blocks of color. Each of the two pieces that make up this work could stand alone, but together they form a whole that's much greater than the sum of its parts.

Even though the loosely defined "crafts as art" movement has been going on since the '60s, Hall acknowledges that there's still a tendency among some to look down on glass as a craft rather than an art. Hall says he has encountered that bias over the years and that even his mentor, who's represented with a piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, used to run into it as well. "Narcissus had a real problem with that," he says, opening a catalog to display the lovely Quagliata piece that's in the Met.

But Hall isn't especially concerned about having his work taken seriously. If necessary, he can always try Quagliata's resourceful tactic for getting one piece into a major permanent collection.

"He got someone to purchase it and then donate it to the museum," Hall says with a laugh.

Jackson Hall's glass art may be viewed by appointment at his home studio, 620 SE Fifth Ct., Fort Lauderdale, 954-768-0162.

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Michael Mills

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