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Keeping a family business true to its roots from more than a century ago while expanding into new creative outlets is the goal of Valerie O'Hara, artist and owner of Pike Stained Glass Studios Inc.
The 105-year-old company was founded by her great-uncle, William Pike, who moved to Rochester to start the business after working for Louis Comfort Tiffany on Long Island. Louis Comfort Tiffany was the first design director for his father's iconic jewelry store, Tiffany & Co.
O'Hara, 58, is the third generation to take the helm at Pike Studios, and she says she regards the business as more of an art studio than a production studio. For her, stained glass is a unique art form.
"Stained glass is the only art form that relies on transmitted light to point out its beauty and richness to view," O'Hara explains. "Everything else relies on reflected light to view it."
She began her love affair with stained glass at age 12 when she started working after school alongside her father, James O'Hara. He had purchased the business from his uncle, William Pike, before Pike passed away in 1958.
James O'Hara held a master's degree in fine arts from City College of New York. His mother, Helen Melvin O'Hara, managed the studio office and his wife, Norma Lee O'Hara, assisted in the design of the windows and color selection.
Valerie O'Hara shared the family's love of art, and after graduation from Penfield High School she earned her bachelor's degree in fine art with a major in painting at Rochester Institute of Technology.
She bought Pike from her parents in 1987 and has been the owner, director and designer since that time. Revenues have remained relatively steady, O'Hara says, although the company was affected by the recession of 2007-09, which hurt many businesses.
Pike Stained Glass Studios specializes in the design and restoration of stained, leaded, beveled and etched glass windows in churches, commercial buildings and residences. Its reproduction and period re-creation windows evoke eras from medieval to Victorian, but the company nevertheless has had to keep up with changing trends through the decades.
"Changes in taste happened rapidly after the turn of the 19th century, especially in mainstream churches. Many were going to a neo-Gothic style," O'Hara says. "You had to adapt to stay in business. Today the Tiffany style is at the height of popularity again."
O'Hara meets with clients to explain the different styles and techniques available. She also has a unique abstract style, which allows her a greater degree of self-expression in her work, she says.
"It's great when they see my portfolio and point to my original work and say, 'We want to go with you,'" O'Hara says. "The freedom that affords me is to be the most expressive."
One client that contracted for O'Hara's original, abstract style is the Flaum Eye Institute at Strong Memorial Hospital. Her design was impressive enough that the institute adopted it as a logo.
"Valerie came up with the perfect vision. She had the concept to create suspended panels of glass that replicate the optic nerve of an eyeball," says Diane Feldon, wife of Stephen Feldon M.D. of the institute. "When you stand back, the sunlight shines through them beautifully and they fit together like a puzzle.
Diane Feldon and eight other people were on a committee assigned to find a local artist to beautify the space that would house the institute at the hospital.
"We thought there was no reason all walls in a hospital have to be painted green, and we thought stained glass would be a great idea, given this area's proximity to Corning," Feldon says.
Three local stained glass companies were invited to bid, and Pike Stained Glass Studios won because of O'Hara's creativity, Feldon says. Her optic nerve design now embellishes the print materials of the Flaum Eye Institute as well as ties and scarves the organization has designed.
"Her image has become the official symbol of the eye institute," Feldon says. "Valerie's work is an integral part of our creative design. She was the perfect fit for us."
O'Hara would like to see her business take on more commercial projects. Much of the company's work involves restoring stained glass windows for churches, and those projects often are funded almost entirely by donations from congregations, which means it can take years for projects to be completed.
Work for churches
O'Hara is especially fond of one church client because all three generations of her family have worked for it. It is the Zion Episcopal Church in Avon. William Pike installed the first window in 1938, and the last window, the 10th, was installed in 2003 by O'Hara.
A former member of the vestry in that congregation recalls sitting with O'Hara's great-uncle as he worked on one of the first windows. Jean Batzing, now 92, remembers the meticulous detail of Pike's work and notes how it parallels the details of his great-niece's work today. She recalls Pike's kindness and the patient way he made time to explain his process to her as he installed the fifth window.
"I sat with Mr. Pike while he worked. I was in my 20s back then," Batzing recalls. "We talked about what the window was to be. I wanted it to be in memory of my mother, in memory of the Downings. All of the windows in the church are dedicated to certain families, and that one was dedicated to mine."
She describes how in 1937 Bishop Charles Persell commissioned all 10 of the stained glass windows to be installed by the Pike Studios and along with Henry Selden, a warden of the church, decided on a theme for the windows.
"Each of the 10 windows depicts a different stage in Christ's life. Our window, No. 5, is the miracle window," Batzing says. "It shows three scenes: the bent-over woman, the calming of the water and the turning of the water to wine. It's beautiful to have these windows.
"Sometimes we get a priest with a flair for art, and he will reference one of these windows in his sermons," Batzing says happily.
The congregation definitely values them, Batzing points out. Her church records book shows that the first window, installed in 1938, cost $350 and the final window, installed in 2003, cost $60,000.
"It's been an honor to see the vision of Bishop Persell completed," Batzing says. "I used to be a teacher, and I believe sometimes you have to see things to appreciate them. These windows are a beautiful way to depict the story of Christ visually. The Pike company has done a wonderful job."
O'Hara constantly works to expand her business but admits it can be a struggle, given the nature of her work.
"It's a business like any other, on top of being an art," she says. "So much of our work comes from word of mouth. The projects we do get are very time-intensive because everything we do is completed by hand, one piece at a time.
"It is difficult to control costs and remain competitive while giving the client the most original, creative work possible."
Material costs account for 30 percent of most projects, O'Hara says, and that can be where "you start bleeding" on a project, especially when the glass must be imported from Europe. A certain hand-blown glass is much more expensive but allows for a richer look, she explains.
While there is no average project, O'Hara estimates her project cost to be $250 to $300 a square foot when she bids on most projects.
"Growth for us now means expanding our customer base beyond New York State and finding large commissions to bid on," O'Hara says.
Off the job
O'Hara says it can be hard to find time to enjoy some of her hobbies, especially since many of them depend on the weather, such as gardening, bicycling, skiing and sailing. Like her love of art, she learned to appreciate many of her hobbies from her parents.
"All these things my parents enjoyed," O'Hara recalls. "I learned sailing at a very early age. I crew. I prefer racing-that is, when I have time. I sail out of the Genesee Yacht Club and the Rochester Yacht Club mainly."
She lives in Brighton near the Penfield line. O'Hara bought the house she grew up in, and it is filled with her parents' artwork. Her two sisters and brother live outside this area.
The Pike Studios' work can be found in churches and commercial buildings in more than 850 locations across New York, including all of the local colleges, the Memorial Art Gallery and Highland Hospital.
Finding skilled labor has not been difficult, O'Hara says, because of the great local colleges with solid art programs. She purposely has kept the company small to maintain its artistic integrity. It has two assistants and two contractors that O'Hara uses for all projects.
Laura Quattrociocchi, an assistant to O'Hara, started working at the company right after graduating from Nazareth College of Rochester in 2007. Her bachelor's degree is in fine arts, with a major in art history as well as a concentration in painting.
"I've been working here ever since," she says. "I've learned everything I know about stained glass from Valerie."
Quattrociocchi works as a glazer, does fabrication of the windows and puts the lead in them, among other duties.
"I feel lucky to be part of this work. These are precious pieces; each piece is a special work of art. Sometimes it's a sad day on installation day because the work is done," she says.
Her favorite work is a mosaic project, assembling small pieces of glass.
"I really enjoyed working on a six-foot replica of a 'tree of life' for St. Catherine's of Sienna in Mendon," she says.
Often, when a project is finished, Quattrociocchi can take a friend or loved one by to see her work. That is the beauty of stained glass on display, she says. It is long-lasting.
"I don't think many people know what a great treasure this company is to the city," Quattrociocchi says. "I didn't realize it until I worked here."
O'Hara is doing her part to share Pike Stained Glass Studios with the community. She works closely with the Landmark Society of Western New York Inc. and the Memorial Art Gallery to promote the history and art of stained glass. She offers lectures and tours of churches that feature her company's work, as well as tours of the 4,000-square-foot company studios in the Smith-Gormley Building on St. Paul Street.
"There are some aspects of our work that I take for granted, having grown up in the business and art of stained glass," O'Hara says. "They are a mystery to others, and it is part of my job to demystify the process and history of stained glass, to make it more accessible to potential clients."
Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Position: President and designer, Pike Stained Glass Studios Inc.
Education: Bachelor of fine arts degree in painting, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1976
Awards: Landmark Society of Western New York, Excellence in Design, 1998, 2006, 2011
Community service: Board member, Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery; volunteer, Episcopal Church Home
Hobbies: skiing, sailing, bicycling, reading, gardening, cooking
Quote: "Stained glass is the only art form that relies on transmitted light to point out its beauty and richness to view. Everything else relies on reflected light to view it."
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